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Strategic Gamble: How AUKUS Divided U.S. Allies

Oct 26, 2021

“This is the alliance we reaffirm today -- rooted in our values; renewed by every generation,” declared then-President Barack Obama during his historic speech before the Australian Parliament in 2011. “And today I can stand before you and say with confidence that the alliance between the United States and Australia has never been stronger.” 

In a speech drenched in emotional appeal, the United States president hailed the “solidarity” between the two allies and, accordingly, Australia’s unprecedented decision to invoke the ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-U.S.) treaty to assist in the Global War on Terror. What made the speech particularly important is not its sonorous rhetoric per se, but instead the Obama administration’s official declaration of its “Pivot to Asia” (P2A) doctrine. 

The U.S. president hailed “a broader shift” away from “two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure,” in favor of “the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.” In no uncertain terms, Obama declared “[o]ur new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth -- the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” Nevertheless, the former U.S. president made it clear that its strategic recalibration is not directed against any specific country, emphasizing his commitment to “continue our effort to build a cooperative relationship with China.” 

Almost exactly a decade later, the U.S. President Joseph Biden, who served as Obama’s Vice President, has introduced a far more assertive twist to the P2A strategy by building a new ‘coalition of willing,’ if not an “Asian NATO,” against a resurgent China. The AUKUS (Australia-UK-U.S.) nuclear submarine deal, however, has exposed deep divisions within the Western alliance as well as among America’s strategic partners in Southeast Asia. 

Slippery Slope 

Within a span of months, if not weeks, the Biden administration has overseen two major diplomatic blunders. First came the sudden collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, which took everyone, including the White House, by surprise. But just as Washington struggled to overcome the reputational damage in wake of the debacle in Afghanistan, it walked straight into another strategic maelstrom. 

After previously committing to a $60B USD purchase from France, the Australians blindsided the French by finalizing an unprecedented nuclear submarine deal with fellow maritime democracies” of the U.S. and U.K. Only a select few nations, all full-fledged nuclear powers, have had access to this technology, thus making Australia potentially the first country to jointly-develop nuclear submarines without having an established nuclear infrastructure. 

Beginning with the Churchill-Roosevelt confab, Britain has relentlessly flaunted its supposed “special relationship” with the U.S. throughout the decades. Now, Australia is courting a similarly special relationship with Washington by positioning itself as a staunch ally in the Indo-Pacific amid deepening diplomatic spats with China. 

Eager to recruit allies for its Cold War against China, the Biden administration has gone so far as declaring that America has ‘no closer ally than Australia.’ Through its unprecedented offer of nuclear submarine technology, the U.S. hopes to further reinforce the dramatic shift in Australia’s foreign policy doctrine as well as crystalize new strategic alignments with the goal of constraining China’s ambitions across the Indo-Pacific.  

By all indications, Washington spectacularly under-estimated the ensuing anger in Paris, which felt ‘stabbed in the back’ and responded with fierce diplomatic countermeasures, including the threat to scuttle a potential EU-Australia trade deal. Certainly, losing the “contract of the century” was not a small matter to France, which hoped to reinforce its defense industry by supplying a dozen advanced diesel-powered submarines to Australia. 

But this was also a blow to a major faction within the French policy elite, which favored closer strategic coordination with the U.S. and Australia amid a brewing conflict with a resurgent China. With France heading into a hotly contested election soon, and right-wing sentiments reaching new heights among the electorate, President Emmanuel Macron was also in no mood to be portrayed as a dispensable force within the Western alliance. 

The European Union (EU) soon joined in, openly accusing the Biden administration of Trump-style unilateralism and blatant disregard for European allies. Standing in solidarity with France, the EU upped the ante by going so far as demanding formal apology from Australia

The whole episode exposed lingering resentments in transatlantic relations after decades of American unilateralism, beginning with the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror and reaching its apex under Trump’s “Make America Great Again” posturing.                            

A Divided Region 

Beyond depriving Paris of a multi-billion deal and reminding Brussels of Anglosphere cliquishness within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the AUKUS deal also has more far-reaching repercussions across the Indo-Pacific. 

For instance, the controversial deal has pushed India and New Zealand, two other major regional players, further into the embrace of the EU, which has similarly favored a more nuanced and calibrated strategy vis-à-vis the rise of China. 

But it’s the response from Southeast Asian countries, which may have been most disappointing to Washington, London, and Canberra. By and large, the majority of regional states either adopted strategic silence or openly criticized the AUKUS deal as an unnecessarily provocative deal. 

Across the region, it’s widely expected that any Australian nuclear submarine will be deployed to strategic waters such as the South China Sea, where Beijing is at loggerheads with multiple Southeast Asian claimant states, namely Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. This potentially raises two concerns for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). 

First of all, it runs against the spirit of the ASEAN’s Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) treaty, a cornerstone of regional efforts against nuclear proliferation in Southeast Asia.

After all, nuclear submarines rely on the same highly-enriched uranium, which can be deployed for nuclear weapons development. 

This is why Australia was quick to reassure its Southeast Asian neighbors of its “staunch” and “steadfast” commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). The bigger concern with AUKUS, however, is rising geopolitical tensions in the region between China, and the U.S. and its allies. 

Since its inception in the Cold War, ASEAN has advocated for a more inclusive, stable, and dialogue-driven regional order, hence its advocacy of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality in Southeast Asia (ZOPFAN) initiative as well as the legally-binding Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), which has been signed by all major regional powers. 

No wonder then, Indonesia, the de facto leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was quick to express how it’s "deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region." Meanwhile, Malaysia went so far as openly criticizing the nuclear submarine deal as a potentially destabilizing maneuver, since it shows that the AUKUS alliance is “openly regard[ing] China as a possible enemy and that, if it comes to the crunch, you might even go to war.” 

Despite their deepening security cooperation with the U.S., both Vietnam and Singapore made a series of more oblique statements, which fell far short of openly backing the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. Other regional states in Indo-China as well as current ASEAN chairman Brunei also refused to make any categorical statement on the issue, which would potentially be discussed in the forthcoming ASEAN Summit in November. 

The only exception is the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, where Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. openly supported the deal as an indispensable step towards “restor[ing] and keep[ing] the balance” of power in the region amid a rapidly rising China. Yet, within few days Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has openly favored warmer and more stable ties with Beijing, contradicted his top diplomat by expressing his “concern about a regional nuclear arms race.” 

So far, it seems that Washington’s allies and regional partners from Europe to the Indo-Pacific have either extremely divergent threat perceptions vis-à-vis a resurgent China, or refuse to openly align against the Asian superpower. 

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