The success of America’s pivot to the Indo-Pacific is only possible if Washington empowers and leverages its allies and partners engaged with the region. In practice, this means moving beyond statements of intent and making substantive policy changes, some of which may be politically challenging in the United States (US). Yet, overcoming these domestic political obstacles will lead to stronger and more lasting multilateral and bilateral relationships, which are critical to successfully countering the People Republic of China’s (PRC) hegemonic ambitions in the region.
Beijing’s global policies have sought to contort the international system to its advantage rather than outright undermine it, leaving it as an important global economy that is critical to global supply chains, but one that is also subverting normative conventions in the process. The multi-dimensional nature of the PRC’s challenge to the international order and the complex interconnections of the global economy mean that the US alone cannot deter Beijing across all domains. Even with a preponderance of power amongst its allies and partners, the US, for example, is unable to contest the PRC’s dominance of critical minerals and rare earth elements or counter its regional ambitions through the Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, the technological aspect of this contest – with both Beijing and Washington striving to secure a competitive edge in next generation technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing – demands a different approach to bi- and multilateral relationships.
Taken together, this new power dynamic requires an alternative approach and one that truly empowers and leverages America’s allies and partners in and of the Indo-Pacific beyond traditional partnerships. Basing arrangements, joint military exercises, mutual support in multilateral fora, and traditional trade agreements will still retain value, but true empowerment means making substantive changes to the way in which America views and engages its allies and partners.
The AUKUS agreement is one such example of this engagement. Under this trilateral relationship, the US will work with Australia and the United Kingdom (UK) to increase power projection in the region through first the rotation of American and British nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) to Australia, which will be superseded by the American sale of Virginia-class SSNs to Australia and eventually the joint construction of a whole new class of SSNs in the long-run. Indeed, in some ways this represents traditional engagement patterns. Yet, it is the long-term cooperation between the three countries that underpins this agreement that is significant.
To operationalise this accord, the US will need to change its export rules and regulations governing nuclear technology. This is not an insignificant policy step, and will see America being far more open with its close allies Australia and the UK than it has in the past. Indeed, Canberra and London are becoming full and true partners in the deepest sense of the word through nuclear information sharing and technology transfer. This openness is critical. Without it the agreement cannot achieve its full and lasting impact.
True empowerment means making substantive changes to the way in which America views and engages its allies and partners.
While most attention has focused on Pillar I – the provision of nuclear-powered attack submarines to Australia – it is Pillar II that arguably will have the most profound and lasting impact on relations between AUKUS countries and is much more indicative of the empowerment of allies and partners needed for this era of strategic competition. Under Pillar II, the three countries will cooperate on research and co-development of advanced technologies such as AI, hypersonic and advanced cyber capabilities. This collaboration is critical if Australia, the UK and particularly the US are to remain competitive with the PRC in these and other critical next generation technologies.
How cooperation is achieved and operationalised under Pillar II has yet to be fully determined. The risk is that abstract commitments to cooperation and coordination on technology are not followed through upon. Washington, Canberra, and London must come to an agreement on what Pillar II activity means in practice. The creation of joint research and development funds, the establishment of grant-awarding mechanisms to research institutions in each country, and the development of multilateral coordination amongst national-level centres of excellence all are examples of pathways to operationalising this critical track. The value of Pillar II goes well beyond the comparable large investments that Canberra and London will make, particularly with a longer-term view to technological competition with Beijing.
Some of the necessary changes to cooperation are within the purview of America’s executive branch and do not necessitate legislative action. These have already accelerated the development and deployment of certain capabilities. Information-sharing and export regulations reform, however, requires Congressional action. While this is a long-known issue, Congress has yet to move forward with any alacrity in addressing the challenge. Here again delays will undermine the confidence of these key partners, and potentially limit the efficacy of the AUKUS agreement and its implementation.
In support of AUKUS and its broader strategic objectives, Washington is pursuing legislation that would make the industrial bases of Australia and the UK ‘domestic sources’ under the Defense Production Act (DPA) – a status currently only held by Canada. Under this designation British and Australian companies in industries of strategic importance such as technology and mining are eligible for American grants and loans. This is emblematic of seeing both London and Canberra as substantive partners by leveraging their domestic industries and American financial largess to increase cooperation and address supply chain vulnerabilities.
AUKUS and the DPA designation are two examples of the US seeing its allies and partners as true equals and leveraging their collective capacity for collective gain. Additional policy actions must, however, follow these critical first steps, and high-level statements of intent require substantive changes to have effect. As noted above, Congressional action on information-sharing and technology-transfer regulations are needed to see AUKUS reach its full potential. Legislation is also needed on DPA designation. The latter is considered far more likely in the near term than the former, but both will require leadership from the White House. Most notably, the White House must work with confrontational Congressional counterparts and convince them that cooperation is not a zero sum game, and that the net benefits of accelerating and ultimately capitalising on Pillar II of the AUKUS agreement outweigh any immediate costs.
Beyond these initial steps, it is vital that Washington takes the time to truly understand and work to substantively address Canberra and London’s near- and long-term interests when developing its strategic calculus. If the US is to truly empower and leverage Australia and the UK, then Washington must have a deeper appreciation for how its partners’ domestic considerations affect and influence policy, and work to create situations that are beneficial for all partners as well as the collective whole. Canberra and London must not just feel as though they have a seat at the table, but actually have one – with deeds following words. This will almost certainly necessitate the US making trade-offs and concessions, but this is fundamental to any relationship.
In the context of ‘minilaterals’ like AUKUS, making concessions and the substantive policy changes necessary to operationalise such agreements will have as great an impact on strategic competition as the agreements themselves. As countries in the Indo-Pacific see the US treating its allies and partners on a more equal platform and following through on commitments made, the attractiveness of a deepened or new partnership with America will only increase. Equally as important, Washington must take the necessary steps to ensure high level commitments it makes are not only realised but successfully operationalised, and at a pace that meets the challenge the PRC represents.
Strategic competition with the PRC in the Indo-Pacific requires not just a whole-of-government approach in the US, but a whole-of-partners approach. To achieve this America will need to empower its allies in Australia and the UK. While AUKUS’ first steps are heading in the right direction, it is vital that follow-on actions are taken to ensure the full strength and potential of this robust agreement – and any future agreements with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific that follow a similar mould – is fully realised.
Joshua Huminski is the Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
Embedded image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila V. Peters/Released (CC BY 2.0 cropped)
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