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AUKUS pact: The sub deal that torpedoed western diplomacy

  • Published at 03:36 am September 25th, 2021
Australian Submarines Australia
File Photo: Australian Collins class submarines were seen in formation in Cockburn Sound, near Rockingham in Western Australia on March 22, 2015 AFP

Australia’s plan to ditch the $59 billion submarine deal with France could strengthen the country's strategic alliance with the US and has the potential to shift the Pacific's naval balance of power

The UK, US and Australia have announced a historic security pact called “AUKUS” in the Asia-Pacific, in what's seen as an effort to counter China.

The global opinions on this new pact have been decidedly mixed. China and France immediately blasted the deal, while others, such as Japan and the Philippines, were more welcoming.

Russia, one of the other few nations armed with nuclear-powered submarines, was more low-key and cautious in its initial reaction.

This surprise military pact has created a massive diplomatic tension among the western allies. Experts have warned of a new cold war in the Indo-Pacific region. Here is everything you need to know about the “AUKUS pact” and its implication for the region and beyond. 

What is AUKUS?

AUKUS is a new trilateral strategic defence alliance between Australia, UK, and US. The initial goal of this military pact is to build a class of nuclear-propelled submarines, and also to work together in the Indo-Pacific region, where China's rise is seen as an increasing threat, and to develop wider technology. With this agreement, the US will share nuclear propulsion technology with a country other than the United Kingdom for the first time.

Australia’s strategic plan 

Australia’s plan to ditch a contract worth more than $59 billion with France to acquire 12 French-made diesel-electric submarines could strengthen the country's strategic alliance with the United States and has the potential to shift the Pacific's naval balance of power. As part of the plan, Australia may conduct routine patrols in the South China Sea.

Diplomatic crisis 

Australia's scrapping of a massive multi-billion-euro contract for the purchase of French submarines has led to a diplomatic crisis between France and its erstwhile allies in Canberra and Washington.

After Canberra’s abrupt and unilateral decision to walkout from the contract, the French foreign affairs and defence ministers released a very short statement to “note” the “unfortunate decision.”

File Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron and Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull standing on the deck of HMAS Waller in Sydney on May 2, 2018 / AFP

The sense of rage in Paris is over what Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called "duplicity", "treachery" and a "stab in the back" -- as well as Morrison's lack of candour.

The defence has also led to an unexpected diplomatic crisis between Paris and Washington, the two oldest allies. 

France and the United States formed an alliance in 1778, two years after the United States declared independence. In the last 200 years of this alliance,  France had never before summoned its ambassador to the US until Friday. The country has also called its ambassador to Australia as a retaliation to its decision to scrap the multi-billion-dollar deal. 

Chinese response

The deal, which did not name China but was widely understood to be in response to its expansionism in the South China Sea and aggression toward Taiwan, drew a swift response from Beijing. The three countries are stuck in an "obsolete cold war zero sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical concepts," according to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, and should "respect regional people's aspiration, otherwise they will only end up hurting their own interests."

China has also questioned Australia's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, with the state-run Global Times predicting that "Australian troops are also most likely to be the first batch of western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea."

Fear of a nuclear arms race

The announcement of a new strategic alliance between Australia, the US and UK (AUKUS) has caught many by surprise along with Australia’s neighbour to the north, the Asean members. 

In particular, Indonesia and Malaysia have come out strongly against Australia’s plan to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the US and UK. Even Singapore, Australia’s most reliable ally in the region, has expressed concern.

Most of them think there is no such thing as acquiring nuclear-powered submarines without the prospect of acquiring nuclear weapons in the future. 

As Australia has not joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, many of the Asean member states fear that the threat of an unexpected nuclear arms race could be on the horizon.   

The potential for conflict in S China Sea

The new agreement also signals that the US, Australia and UK view the South China Sea as a key venue for this contest against China.

The Asean nations have always preached maintaining southeast Asia as a “zone of peace, freedom and neutrality,” free from interference by any outside powers. 

However, the goal of maintaining neutrality and freedom in the region have been violated multiple times   as China, the US, Britain and France manoeuvred armed warships through the South China Sea — not to mention China’s building of military bases on disputed islands there. 

Australian nuclear-powered submarines have the potential to change the dynamics in the South China Sea and make the Chinese much more nervous. There have already been plenty of “close encounter” incidents between the Chinese and US navies in the disputed waters, as well as the Chinese navy and ships belonging to Asean members. The region could be a flash point for future conflicts. 

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