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Why Is AUKUS Unpopular?

Nov 01, 2021
  • Guo Chunmei

    Associate Researcher, Institute of Southeast Asian and Oceanian Studies, CICIR

Recently, the U.S., Britain and Australia abruptly announced the formation of a new trilateral security alliance: AUKUS. The two nuclear-haves promised to help Australia build nuclear submarines, causing an uproar. The partnership was widely seen as targeting China, but it has attracted strong opposition within the region and around the world.

First, the Australian people are not ready to be tied to the American war chariot. As the nominal “biggest beneficiary” of AUKUS, the administration of Prime Minister Scott Morrison was clearly overjoyed, even elated, at being given access to advanced equipment far beyond the means of a middle power.

Others with vision, including former Prime Minister Paul Keating, question the value of the arrangement and worry about potentially endless consequences. These people are concerned that Australia will become a vassal of the United States and lose its defense sovereignty. The high-end American equipment, nuclear submarines included, in service of the “natural mission” to support the U.S. will undoubtedly lock Australia into the American power structure and make the country an American frontier base in the Indo-Pacific. Australia, which is nominally under the protection of the U.S. military, has in reality become part of America’s Indo-Pacific command. If and when there is war, Australia will bear the brunt.

They also worry that taking the U.S. side now in a changing world is equivalent to an automatic abandonment of other good strategic options. The new alliance has strengthened the Asian conviction that Australia is “alien” and “Anglo-Saxon” at the bottom of its heart. Such a perception will deprive Australia of its capital to maneuver and exert creative influence in an era of uncertainty.

A further concern arises over the Morrison administration’s shift in focus towards unwarranted security threats and its commitment to building long-range offensive strategic weapons that will cost a lot of money and take a long time to deliver, against a backdrop of economic strains and high deficits. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, defense spending may well crowd out the private sector, putting the government to a test of popular support.

Second, countries in the region oppose stirring up tension. The nuclear submarine cooperation will be the first of its kind by the U.S. since it transferred nuclear submarine technology to the United Kingdom in 1958. With regional security situation heating up, the move has obviously opened Pandora’s Box. It has upset the regional balance of military power and fueled regional arms race.

If all goes well, Australia could become the seventh country in the world to possess nuclear submarines. Given the historical entanglements, this enhanced underwater attack capability can hardly be good news for its Southeast Asian neighbors. Out of security concerns, countries of the region may be forced into a vicious circle of arms races.

In addition, the arrangement may well fuel Australian adventurism and increase the risk of more regional tensions. The U.S. has gone all out to arm Australia for nothing more than tapping the latter’s geographical advantages and hardening its forward deployment to potentially stir up the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, as such operations had be beyond American power. The blessings of the U.S. and UK have further boosted Australia's ambition to continue playing deputy sheriff in the region, making an accidental discharge of fire more likely. After the AUKUS announcement, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries were among the first to warn Australia to avoid provocative behavior.

Another hazard is the potential secret transfer of nuclear submarine technology, putting pressure on non-proliferation institutions. The U.S. and UK, despite their professed adherence to the NPT, are making it possible, by helping Australia build nuclear submarines, for the non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire weapons-grade enriched uranium. It is hard to imagine that Australia, which is rich in uranium and has the technology to process it, will give up the opportunity to become a nuclear weapon state, or that other non-nuclear weapon states will not be tempted to follow suit.

Third, the exclusive small circle has annoyed other allies and partners of the U.S. The new trilateral security alliance is seen as a top priority by the Biden administration, which also promised to share highly sensitive defense technologies among the three maritime democracies of the same origin and with deep mutual trust. The formation of a small clique has chilled other transatlantic partners. France became the first victim, with a $9 billion conventional submarine order poached by the U.S. and Britain. The EU member saw it as an insult and denounced the Australian betrayal and the American stab in the back. The EU has had misgivings about the ongoing free trade talks with unreliable Australia and has again felt an urgent need for strategic autonomy.

Indo-Pacific partners don’t seem to enjoy the distinction between close and more distant allies, either. In recent years, the U.S. has pursued an Indo-Pacific strategy and advocated the centrality of the Quad (U.S., Japan, India and Australia). But on critical issues like defense technologies, the U.S. has ditched its ally Japan and important partner India.

The Five Eyes, the intelligence alliance of the Anglosphere relied upon by the U.S. around the world, is supposedly a group with high internal trust, but Canada and New Zealand have been excluded from AUKUS. By far, Japan, South Korea and other allies have expressed a clear desire for equal treatment. India showed an interest in buying French nuclear submarines. Canada and New Zealand have been struggling to hide their feeling of being ill-treated.

A just cause enjoys abundant support while an unjust one finds little. The Biden administration’s moves to build alliances are in nature no different from the frequent withdrawals by the previous Donald Trump administration. Both have put America first above everything else. Even close allies are only pawns of America, the hegemon. AUKUS has further disillusioned many. At a time when most countries in the region are striving to maintain peace and stability, the U.S., out of its own selfish interests, has deliberately stirred up regional antagonism and vicious competition, which naturally makes such moves unpopular.

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