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What AUKUS Really Means

Oct 07, 2021
  • Wang Fan

    Vice President, China Foreign Affairs University

The U.S.-dominated AUKUS alliance has many characteristics showing it’s a new development in the U.S. alliance strategy formulated since WWII. In forming the alliance, the United States and Australia didn’t hesitate to forsake an existing cooperation agreement between Australia and France on a conventional submarine purchase, resulting in an economic loss of as much as $50 billion to France.

The alliance is, first of all, a product of a Cold War attitude. Both NATO, which was established in 1947, and the U.S.-Australia-New Zealand trilateral alliance formed in 1951, were products of the Cold War. The 2021 AUKUS is an outcome of the U.S. strategy of hedging as it aims to foster a new cold war.

Second, this alliance is an alliance on top of an alliance. It’s also an alliance inside an alliance. The three-nation alliance is a condensed version of the so-called Five Eyes, and an upgraded and enhanced version of the QUAD. While the UK is not a QUAD member, it is an important extra-regional supporter from the Atlantic. All three are core members of NATO and Asia-Pacific alliances. Australia and the UK are special U.S. partners in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The U.S. has special relations with both the UK and Australia, with the latter being the southern anchor of U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy. The three are, at the same time, inheritors of Anglo-Saxon civilization. The UK and Australia are core members of Commonwealth of Nations. In such an arrangement, France is no doubt a heterogeneous nation.

Third, the three-nation alliance has strong military purposes. The trilateral cooperation on nuclear submarines is very eye-catching. Nuclear submarines are nimble and difficult to detect. The nuclear submarine agreement means the U.S. and UK are ready to export nuclear technologies to non-nuclear Australia. The three believe once Australia acquires nuclear submarines, which are more stealthy and operate longer underwater, it will bolster deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, including the South China Sea. The U.S. only shared technologies for nuclear submarine development with the UK in 1958. Now it is sharing such technologies with Australia. Such an arrangement will make it easier for the U.S. to extend its military capacity to the South Pacific.

Fourth, the alliance is highly functional and involves close high-tech cooperation. It will cover such fields as artificial intelligence, quantum technology and networks, and is an agreement about sharing high defense technologies. Two of the three members are already nuclear powers, and Australia is under U.S. nuclear protection. For this agreement, Australia even abandoned military cooperation with France.

Fifth, the U.S. has always wished to integrate its NATO and Asia-Pacific alliances. It is another way of integration to forge one-way unions among several members of the NATO and Asia-Pacific alliances. The UK happened to have left the EU and set its eyes on the Asia-Pacific.

The formulation of AUKUS will yield lasting influence on both the U.S. alliance strategy and regional security.

First, more U.S. allies have realized that the U.S. treats countries differently even inside alliances, and it may even drive wedges between allies and lead to betrayals of each other.

Second, while the U.S. strategy is clearly targeted, it is untenable. Both the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and AUKUS attempt to establish an area beyond Chinese control. But the fact is, this area has always been under U.S. control. So its target is virtual and imagined.

Third, the agreement deprives Australia of its already extremely limited strategic autonomy, and subordinates it completely to U.S. strategy. Australia has thus become an out-and-out U.S. pawn.

Fourth, the trilateral nuclear security cooperation violates the 1973 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and constitutes a challenge to the international nonproliferation mechanism. It will very likely trigger arms races, including in the Asia-Pacific, and thereby result in regional turbulence.

Fifth, the new combination may create new troubles in the U.S. global alliance system. Because of the complicated structure of the U.S. alliance system, there will inevitably be divergences among members based on different interests. On one hand, the U.S. binds allies on the bandwagon of U.S. hegemony to serve its global strategy. On the other, to avoid major military risks, the U.S. has always sought to avoid automatic involvement in alliance clauses — which may impose corresponding obligations and bring military risks to the U.S. once a certain ally acts on its own. Therefore, the U.S. will continuously strengthen strict control over important, sensitive allies, such as Japan, which has territorial disputes with China over certain islands. The same is true of South Korea, which has been in military standoff with North Korea. This will further weaken allies’ sovereign status.

For instance, the U.S. controls the U.S.-ROK alliance’s wartime command and doesn’t want the China-Japan disputes to get out of control despite its support for the Japanese side. This circumstance will make those so-called allies worry about their strategic autonomy for independent decision-making when a crisis occurs, and may render them unwilling to act fully in following U.S. orders. This, in turn, may cause fierce intra-alliance repercussions from allies in the long run. 

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