AUKUS is the newest of the awkward acronyms that litter the geo-political landscape of the Indo-Pacific mega-region. Sounding like an agitated seabird, this security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States has drawn extensive commentary since its announcement on 15 September.
.Much of this attention stems from the pact’s unstated but obvious intent to counter a rising China. Adding further drama is the first major initiative for AUKUS: provision of American nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, which meant cancelling its contract to purchase diesel-powered submarines from France.
Unsurprisingly, China denounced the pact as exemplary of the “Cold War mentality” of the United States and its partners. Expressions of Gallic outrage were also shrill, with France withdrawing its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington.
Given this predictable fallout, what lies behind AUKUS?
Arguably, it was forged as much in Beijing as in Washington, Canberra and London. As recently as 2016 when Australia agreed to the French deal, it saw no need for nuclear-powered submarines. Similarly, the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia was predicated on balancing cooperation and competition with China, not on outright confrontation. The United Kingdom then was more focused on the allure of the Chinese market than security challenges.
Much has changed over the past five years, most notably Chinese behaviour. Its assertive defence of sovereignty claims has raised tensions in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Taiwan Straits, as well as on the Sino-India border. It has allegedly launched cyber-hacking attacks on Western states and lured developing countries into dependency through its Belt and Road Initiative. At home, the Chinese Communist Party has tightened its increasingly technologically-powered authoritarian control from Xinjiang to Hong Kong.
But why is AUKUS the specific response? For the Biden administration, it signals a determination to work with trusted allies to dispel any uncertainties about the American commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. For Canberra, it brings even closer alignment with its longstanding great and powerful ally, after facing Chinese economic and other pressures for its “bad behaviour”. For London, it facilitates a desired post-Brexit global focus, while reaffirming the “special relationship” with the United States. Hard-nosed decisions about security have thus driven AUKUS, overriding prior consultation with all partners, especially those with less robust views on China.
The French pique is part of the price for those decisions. But allies do not always agree on everything. As Poland well knows, concerns about Nord Stream 2 did not deter a NATO ally, Germany, from pressing ahead on this project with Russia.
But liberal democracies find ways of managing differences. Presidents Biden and Macron have already issued a face-saving statement and France’s ambassador will return to Washington.
Even if the scepticism of France and others can be allayed, it remains to be seen how successful AUKUS will be. Whatever happens, it is highly unlikely to evolve into a new NATO. The Indo-Pacific is not Europe and includes few countries like those in Central and Eastern Europe who clamoured to join NATO. Relations with China are complex in this diverse region of unlike-minded states, who mostly prefer to hedge between great powers.
It also merits emphasis that Australia and Britain are already the closest of American allies. While the European Union recently announced its own Indo-Pacific strategy, its approach is not entirely congruent with those of the three Anglophone powers. Indeed, the EU’s definition of the region does not even include the United States as an Indo-Pacific nation.
Hot on the heels of this week’s focus on AUKUS, President Biden is hosting a leaders’ meeting of the so-called Quad, which brings together Australia, the United States, India and Japan. Although gathering momentum, the Quad is unlikely to match the unity of purpose of AUKUS, largely because of Delhi’s long prized “strategic autonomy”. Nonetheless, India’s participation is further confirmation of shared concerns about China.
According to The Economist, AUKUS represents a tectonic change geo-politically. But tectonic changes are only felt when geological plates have already shifted. AUKUS is more a symptom than a cause of deepening geo-political competition in the Indo-Pacific.
For those who support liberal democracies working together, both AUKUS and the Quad bear some promise. But they also present challenges in a complex region where hearts and minds cannot simply by won by deploying military power.
Only time will tell if AUKUS (or the Quad) will amount to more than an acronym. What is clear is that three like-minded democracies have harnessed the diplomacy of power to advance their shared values and interests. But, as China has shown, the diplomacy of power can be counterproductive.
.If AUKUS is to avoid a similar fate, the three partners must now unleash the power of diplomacy. As well as reconciling aggrieved partners like France, they should engage on multiple fronts with the diverse states of the Indo-Pacific, including China. This will involve investment in various forms of softer power, ranging from political dialogue to economic interaction and scientific-technological cooperation. Additional awkward acronyms may be needed.