The announcement of a trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) under the acronym ‘AUKUS’ on 15th September 2021 has been described as ‘increasingly vital for defending our interests around the world’ by Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, and ‘seriously undermine[ing] regional peace and stability’ by Zhao Lijian, Spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beyond its predictable cold reception by the PRC and the diplomatic tensions with France, AUKUS is a milestone for British seapower in the 21st century and an indication that Global Britain will have a strong maritime dimension.
Reactions and commentaries in Euro-Atlantic countries have emphasised the importance of this partnership for Australia. This is indeed the case for two main reasons: Firstly, for any country’s armed forces, the procurement of nuclear-powered submarines is not anecdotal: they not only provide the advantage of endurance and stealth (since they virtually do not need to resurface); they also have been a powerful symbol of naval power since the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, was commissioned in 1954. Secondly, AUKUS offers Australia an opportunity to strengthen its defence ties with the two most prominent Western military powers, which has the potential to shift the military balance in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical space.
However, in the context of the implementation of the 2021 Integrated Review’s ambitions, AUKUS is critical for the UK too. At a structural level, this partnership demonstrates that Britain is serious when it comes to its geostrategic ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, which requires cooperation with like-minded states in the region via partnerships and alliances that not only add value to the UK’s defence capabilities but also cement trust between partners and allies and have a strong symbolic value. Indeed, Global Britain requires a proactive stance in defence of progressive, liberal values. Whereas AUKUS does not automatically make the UK an Indo-Pacific power, it provides the British with a stable anchor point in the region, reassures regional partners and the US that Global Britain is in the region to stay, and, in the longer term, defends Britain’s interests in a region of the world that has been identified as crucial for the country’s future security and prosperity.
What are the implications for what Chris Parry defines as ‘Global Maritime Britain’?
To begin with, the formation of AUKUS demonstrates that Global Britain considers the Indo-Pacific theatre to be critical to its future prosperity and wellbeing. The PRC is increasingly assertive in the maritime domain, from its accelerated development of aircraft carriers, to legal claims over the South China Sea, on to its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Global Britain calls for the UK, as a maritime, liberal nation, to participate in the efforts to respond to these geostrategic shifts and AUKUS, in the words of the new UK National Security Advisor, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, is indeed ‘a powerful illustration of how we are building new long term partnerships rooted in Britain’s values, its scientific and engineering excellence, and in our alliances’.
AUKUS also shows that Global Britain will have a strong maritime dimension. The successful implementation of the objectives set up in the Integrated Review will depend on the vitality of British seapower. The Integrated Review stresses that the defence, security and prosperity of the UK is strongly linked to the maritime domain, to Britain’s mastery of the sea as well to the health and resilience of the oceans. Along with HMS Defender’s assertion of freedom of navigation in the Black Sea in June 2021 and the deployment of Carrier Strike Group (CSG 2021) to the South China Sea in Summer 2021, the AUKUS partnership demonstrates the prominence of the maritime dimension of Global Britain.
Moreover, seapower is much more than naval power. The Royal Navy will be key to the delivery of the objectives set up in the Integrated Review and the accompanying Defence Command Paper. As it says, the Royal Navy has a role ‘safeguarding our homeland, Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, protecting the maritime environment, including our fisheries, projecting global influence, boosting UK trade and prosperity, and upholding our values and International law’. This is confirmed by the deployment of CSG 2021 and Her Majesty’s (HM) Government’s long-term commitment to invest in British defence, which will almost certainly benefit the Royal Navy.
Equally, seapower is not just about the order of battle at sea; it is not just about operating a balanced fleet or making the most of innovative technologies. Seapower relies on enduring cooperation between liberal maritime nations. The prestige derived from seapower puts Britain at an advantage when bidding for global leadership – in other words, seapower generates ‘soft power’. In addition, a successful seapower politics relies on HM Government’s commitment to civilian maritime assets and stakeholders, such as marine insurance, commercial ports, shipbuilding industry, and shipping companies. It also requires decision-makers across ministries and governmental agencies to embrace the maritime dimension of the UK and to promote a cross-sectoral maritime culture in a bid to address sea blindness.
However, despite what AUKUS means for Global Britain, there are challenges ahead. For starters, British ‘decision-makers have a choice to make about the hierarchy of theatres of operations for the Navy. It might not be possible to operate at the same level of intensity and in a sustainable way in both Europe and Asia.’ The UK has interests in the Euro-Atlantic, including the Mediterranean and the Arctic, as well as the Indo-Pacific theatre (among others). Despite recent budgetary commitments and a clear strategic vision elaborated in the Integrated Review, financial, material and human resources are limited.
Therefore, a pragmatic solution to a successful Global Maritime Britain rests on the implementation of ‘collective seapower’, which accounts for the fact that seapower does not need to be a zero-sum game when it comes to the defence of the liberal international order. Indeed, like-minded countries can adopt a ‘collective seapower’ strategy to help to limit the resources that a single country needs to commit to the stability of the global maritime domain.
This strategy is not without risks and challenges, especially in relation to other major powers. ‘Collective seapower’ should not be pursued at the expense of strategic autonomy; Global Maritime Britain requires striking the right balance between cooperation/integration with, and autonomy from, the US. When it comes to France, it is important to remember that French foreign policy has traditionally been characterised by pragmatism and the search for prestige. Given the fact that France is both a major European ally and an important power in the Indo-Pacific theatre (with substantial overseas territories and sovereign rights over related maritime areas) the challenge consists in finding a way to co-opt France rather than to leave it isolated in the region.
AUKUS is an example of a ‘collective seapower’ strategy put in practice and an opportunity for HM Government to cement Britain’s global maritime leadership. While commentators may continue to highlight the ‘realist’ nature of the partnership (i.e. balancing the PRC in the Indo-Pacific), it is important to recognise the ‘liberal’ side of it, i.e. cooperation within a solidaristic community of maritime nations. Global Maritime Britain as a defence, security, economic, and environmental project will succeed as long as it remains inclusive and flexible enough to secure the wider possible membership.
Dr Basil Germond is a Senior Lecturer in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at Lancaster University. He has published two books and in excess of 30 academic articles and book chapters on seapower, maritime security, and the geopolitics of the sea.
Join our mailing list!
Stay informed about the latest articles from Britain’s World