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How will AUKUS deter threats in the Indo-Pacific?

In the wake of the AUKUS announcement in San Diego on Monday 13th March, the Council on Geostrategy asks six strategic experts how the agreement deters threats in the Indo-Pacific…

Kate Clayton, La Trobe Asia

Evolving threats in the Indo-Pacific

AUKUS recognises that the Indo-Pacific is becoming increasingly unstable and that the chances of conflict with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are growing. If AUKUS sticks to the plan outlined this week, it better equips its members if such a conflict occurs, and enhances their ability to deter it in the first place. AUKUS demonstrates that in times of instability, the ‘Anglosphere’ is united. 

AUKUS is nonetheless a risky programme. During a cost of living crisis, Australia will have to justify spending £201 billion on defence to voters. It also places a lot of trust in the United States (US). Leasing Virginia-class submarines, which will shrink America’s fleet, will need to be passed through US Congress. US International Traffic in Arms legislation must also be reformed to meet Pillars I and II within a reasonable timeframe. As the Presidency of Donald Trump highlighted, US resolve in the Indo-Pacific, and as an ally more broadly, is not guaranteed. 

The nature and gravity of threats in the Indo-Pacific will evolve over the next 30 years. Climate change, for example, threatens Indo-Pacific security. Investment in AUKUS could draw away from regional humanitarian and disaster relief. However, the main risk of AUKUS for the Indo-Pacific is the mixed support from regional partners. Indonesia and Malaysia have raised concerns about threats to regional instability and nuclear proliferation. In the Pacific, Australia’s commitment to the Treaty of Rarotonga, may also be questioned. 

Canberra would have been aware of all these risks, but deemed them palatable due to the arrangement’s value in deterring potential threats in the Indo-Pacific.

Blake Herzinger, United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Hardening commitments and alliances

Admittedly this week everybody is talking about ‘SSN AUKUS’, but the immediate deterrent value of AUKUS is the signal to revisionist powers that regional states are paying attention to their efforts at tearing down the open international order. The threat presented to a peaceful region has firmed up alliances and built new technology-sharing mechanisms to build platforms capable of resisting aggression.

The trilateral investment announced in Point Loma on Monday should be a game-changing boost to shipbuilding and ship repair capacity between the three AUKUS partners. The much-lamented critical shortfall in these areas has only grown worse over the past decade, and likely emboldened adversaries. The fact that all three partners found a way to commit themselves to partnership in funding and co-developing their domestic defence industrial bases to grapple with an increasingly less-stable region is a welcome sign of commitment, and should give potential adversaries pause.

As many have noted, the US is unable to deter the PRC alone. AUKUS creates the necessary foundation for trilateral submarine cooperation between the US and two of its allies in an increasingly fraught period.

The views expressed in this passage are those of the author alone and do not represent those of either the US or Australian governments.

Rory Medcalf, National Security College, Australian National University

Long-term and immediate deterrence

The principal purpose of AUKUS is to strengthen Australia against the unnamed but obvious challenge of the PRC’s rapid military modernisation. There will also be long-term benefits for all three partners: the pooling of defence science and industry capacities, not only to develop a superior next-generation nuclear submarine (SSN), but across the spectrum of advanced technologies. 

The other broader gain from AUKUS is its contribution to deterrence across the Indo-Pacific. The material deterrent effect will be phased: the rotation of US and United Kingdom (UK) submarines to Western Australia within a few years; Canberra’s early-2030s acquisition of US Virginia-class submarines; and the later introduction of the new three-nation SSN. In time, AUKUS submarines will not only protect Australia’s vast maritime interests, but contribute to US-led deterrence against Chinese adventurism: even one SSN on station will give pause to any would-be naval aggressor, whether against Taiwan or another target.

But the immediate effect matters too: demonstrating sustained intent to allies, partners, swing states and strategic competitors alike. That message? The US is in the Indo-Pacific to stay, Australia and the UK are serious about protecting the regional order, and the defensive efforts of other friends are not in vain, but part of a larger web of deterrence and resilience.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

The merging of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific

As others have noted here, AUKUS’ most obvious deterrent effect comes from the fact that it facilitates the persistent forward deployment of British and American SSNs to the Indo-Pacific, as the Royal Australian Navy acquires SSNs with UK and US assistance. On completion, these vessels, which will probably be the most advanced in the world, will help reassure regional partners and deter potential aggressors. By empowering Australia, the UK and the US have reduced the burden on themselves and maximised the number of SSNs available, particularly since the PRC is engaged in a substantial naval build-up.

But there is also a geopolitical dimension to AUKUS’ ability to deter. Not only does AUKUS draw the world’s two most advanced nuclear naval powers permanently into the region, but it also represents the geopolitical fusion of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions. As the UK’s Integrated Review Refresh – published earlier this week – points out: ‘The growing coalescence amongst our like-minded allies and partners is also translating into a new network of “Atlantic-Pacific” partnerships, based on a shared view that the prosperity and security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are inextricably linked.’ With Eurasia’s two main maritime flanks bound together, potential aggressors would need to think about how their actions in one theatre might draw in opponents from another. Aggression becomes potentially more costly, thereby reducing its likelihood.

Philip Shetler-Jones, Council on Geostrategy

Not just Indo-Pacific, but global deterrence

The most immediate contribution AUKUS makes to deterrence is the stabilising effect it will have on the balance of undersea power in the Indo-Pacific. From Australia’s perspective, the PRC to the north operates more than fifty submarines, including a dozen that are nuclear-powered. India to the west has been leasing nuclear-powered submarines from Russia, but already started building its own fleet. Australian security was therefore heading for a risk of over-dependence on its Pacific ally, the US. 

On a global level, AUKUS brings an extra political layer of deterrence by binding the UK to the region in a trilateral configuration. While the demands of training, developing, building and operating Australia’s new generation of submarines locks in a more regular and long-term Royal Navy presence ‘down under’, the US-UK element of cooperation also cements the transatlantic bond for another generation.

The second pillar of AUKUS (on emerging technologies like quantum, AI, and autonomous underwater vehicles) contributes by aligning defence technology sectors to share investment costs and benefits, but also by offering an opening to additional partners like India and Japan. A broad and powerful balancing coalition is the best hope for deterring coercive or aggressive moves in the region.

Velina Tchakarova, For A Conscious Experience

More vessels and more collaboration

AUKUS provides a platform for Australia, the US and the UK to share intelligence and coordinate their defence policies, enabling them to respond more effectively to regional security threats. Another way that AUKUS deters threats in the Indo-Pacific is by simply increasing the military presence of all three nations in the region. It may also encourage them to hold more military exercises with more partners, something which they have already been doing.

Ramping up the number of military exercises and participants in such drills not only strengthens military cooperation between AUKUS partners, but also other countries in the region. For instance, Anthony Albanese, the Australian Prime Minister, recently visited India and declared it a ‘top-tier security partner’ of Australia, highlighting the strategic alignment between the two. He also praised India’s participation in the multinational Talisman Sabre war games, which includes several of India’s security partners such as the US, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the UK. Additionally, Australia will host the four-nation Malabar naval exercise in August this year, a significant endeavour.

AUKUS, by enhancing the military presence of all three members in the Indo-Pacific and encouraging them to collaborate with more partners on military exercises, further enhances the collective defence posture of the region. India and Japan may even eventually join, something which would significantly strengthen other regional organisations, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

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