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AUKUS: Strategic drivers and geopolitical implications

Last month, on 8th and 14th December, respectively, Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) held the inaugural meetings of the Steering Groups which were set up as part of the AUKUS agreement announced by Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, and Scott Morrison approximately three months before on 15th September 2021. In addition to pushing ahead with helping Australia to develop its own nuclear attack submarines, the inaugural meetings also identified other areas of cooperation beyond the four initially prioritised by the three leaders in September (namely cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities).

Negotiated in unprecedented secrecy during the spring and summer of 2021, AUKUS has already generated a great deal of discussion. AUKUS was created to facilitate the transfer of British and American nuclear submarine technology to Australia, although an 18-month study is now running to determine how. This will probably include the nuclear propulsion technologies from the UK and US, the hull design from the UK, and various weapons, including long-throw cruise missiles, from the US. Equally, the agreement will facilitate the development of advanced new technologies, which may, in the long run, become even more important than the transfer of nuclear submarine technology to Australia. But what drove the three countries to establish AUKUS? What are the geopolitical implications of the agreement? And where is it going?

Strategic drivers

Australia, the UK and the US each had different reasons for constituting the group. Australia sought closer relations with the UK and US because it wanted nuclear attack submarines. In 2015, the Royal Australian Navy agreed to procure 12 diesel submarines from Naval Group, a French defence company, which would provide it with a modest capability enhancement. Since then, however, Australia has grown increasingly perturbed by the geopolitical revisionism of the PRC under the imperious leadership of Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The final straw was the CCP’s handling of Covid-19, its implementation of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy and particularly the outlining of ‘14 Grievances’ in 2020. Allied with the rapid Chinese naval build-up, Australia sees the PRC’s trajectory as a threat to its sovereignty and right to self-determine its own affairs.

Given the vast distances involved to get between Fleet Base West in Perth – Australia’s main submarine base – and potential stalking grounds surrounding the South and East China seas, French-designed conventional submarines would have limited endurance – 0-14 days in comparison with at least 70 for a nuclear submarine. This melded with escalating costs for France’s more limited boats, leading Canberra to turn to its more traditional and well-armed allies – London and Washington – for strategic assistance.

When the Australians approached the UK, the British responded positively. For Britain, AUKUS animates ‘Global Britain’, the idea developed in Her Majesty’s (HM) Government’s Integrated Review that British power should be actively used in pursuit of an open international order. AUKUS is a practical demonstration of this in the Indo-Pacific region to the extent that it helps Britain become – as prescribed by the Integrated Review – ‘the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence in support of mutually-beneficial trade, shared security and values.’ In addition, the UK sees the trilateral as an opportunity to energise the British defence industrial base – the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines are probably closer to Australian requirements than US ones – a point Johnson was keen to stress in his televised intervention in September when the deal was announced.

And for the US, AUKUS will greatly empower one of its two closest Indo-Pacific allies (the other being Japan) while drawing its closest Euro-Atlantic ally permanently into the Indo-Pacific, thereby creating a stronger counterweight to Chinese power in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. It shows that, after the bungled US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US is not turning inward or becoming isolationist; instead, it indicates that the Americans are doubling down on pursuing their more immediate geostrategic interests: moderating the PRC’s rise.

AUKUS generated such debate because it seemingly came out of nowhere. But for those familiar with Australian strategic policy, and Australia-UK-US relations more generally, the agreement is not a bolt from the blue. The three countries already have a very close relationship. The ability of Australia, the UK and US to interoperate and interchange forces with one another is perhaps the most extensive in the world, a consequence of little-known and informal terrestrial, naval and air spin-off agreements connected to the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence grouping. At least for the UK, AUKUS builds on the 2013 defence agreement between the UK and Australia, which allowed for the transfer of military technology between the two partners. 

Geopolitical implications

AUKUS has already started to have geopolitical implications. After Brexit and a messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan, AUKUS serves as a timely reminder to those doubting UK and US strength and determination that both nations still have considerable power at their disposal and great creativity in realising their geostrategic goals. As Sir Stephen Lovegrove, the National Security Advisor, told the Council on Geostrategy the day after the AUKUS announcement in September 2021, the agreement represents ‘perhaps the most significant capability collaboration anywhere in the world in the past six decades.’ Australia, too, has shown how important it is: having moved from ‘down under’ to ‘top centre’ in only a handful of years, the country has centralised its role in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific. AUKUS will enable Australia to operate advanced nuclear attack submarines, greatly empowering the Royal Australian Navy during a time when other countries in the Indo-Pacific – the PRC in particular – are engaged in a rapid naval build-up.

Moreover, the announcement of AUKUS also reverberated in Europe. The extraordinary and intemperate French reaction to the agreement quickly became apparent, even if France is unlikely to mount a lasting challenge. Although France used AUKUS to argue for the acceleration of European ‘strategic autonomy’, the sheer cost of that endeavour remains a politically insurmountable challenge. Indeed, the EU’s latest defence effort – the ‘Strategic Compass’ – remains very modest, and few European countries, not least Poland, Romania and the Baltic and Nordic countries – those most threatened by Russia’s aggressive kleptocracy – trust France and its European ambitions. Instead, they continue to look to the UK and US and those who provide the mainstay of troops, aircraft and warships to NATO’s Enhanced and Tailored forward presences they need for protection. Many have even praised AUKUS insofar as Britain’s participation indirectly binds Australia and the US closer to Euro-Atlantic security, providing fresh animation to the emergence of an integrated Atlantic-Pacific region.

Despite these initial outcomes, the real geopolitical impact of AUKUS will be felt over the longer term. Although AUKUS may never be central to a free and open Indo-Pacific in the same way that NATO is to the Euro-Atlantic, particularly given the geostrategic importance of India and Japan, as well as the emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the three maritime democracies have confirmed with AUKUS that they are dissatisfied with existing multilateral arrangements and that they are not prepared to wait indefinitely for regional stakeholders. As a ‘plurilateral’ group, AUKUS – agile and nimble – has swiftly created a new centre of geopolitical gravity and, despite British, American and Australian attempts to dampen regional fears, throws down the gauntlet to other countries and actors in the Indo-Pacific: it reminds them that they cannot sit on the fence, or else Australia, the UK and the US will ultimately take measures into their own hands.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, AUKUS will make regional geopolitics more complicated for systemic competitors, such as the PRC. As Map 1 shows, AUKUS ‘triangulates’ power between three geostrategic nodes: the British Isles, North America and Australia. It extends to Australia technology and resources it would not otherwise have, actualising one of the central concepts of HM Government’s Integrated Review and accompanying Defence Command Paper, namely ‘active deterrence’. Through AUKUS, the UK and US are showing that they can deter revisionists not only by sending their own strategic assets into the Indo-Pacific, but also by empowering regional partners and allies. At the same time, by simultaneously focusing on next-generation technologies, the three countries have combined forces to create a more potent ‘technology accelerator’ to compete with the PRC.

Map 1: The geopolitics of AUKUS

Conclusion: The future of AUKUS

Given the strategic drivers behind AUKUS, the future looks bright. Looking ahead, perhaps the biggest question is whether the arrangement remains exclusive, or whether it serves as the beginning of a more systemic rearrangement of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific. Despite not being a formal alliance, AUKUS nonetheless generates a centre of geopolitical gravity based on shared interests and deep trust to convene – even align – other regional powers. General Sir Nicholas Carter, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, has already indicated that AUKUS will not necessarily remain exclusive, even if future members decide to not partake in nuclear submarine cooperation, which, in any case, may turn out to be of secondary importance to the agreement’s role as a broader advanced technology accelerator. 

Other ‘Five Eyes’ partners – Canada and New Zealand – could almost certainly get involved in AUKUS, particularly in terms of advanced scientific research, even if the New Zealanders are averse to the military application of nuclear technology. Other countries, particularly Japan, could also potentially align with AUKUS, not least because of the closeness between the US and Japan, as well as Australia and Japan, but also, due to the emergence of the ‘quasi-alliance’ between London and Tokyo, which may deepen further given the shared interests between the two insular countries.

In short, AUKUS has the potential not only to ensure a more active deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, but also to create a broader high-technology regulatory ecosystem, ensuring that autocratic competitors do not replace democracies as the dominant technological powers of the twenty-first century.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.

Note: The map in this article was updated on 31st August 2022 and 23rd March 2023.

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