AUKUS, Two Years Later

AUKUS, Two Years Later

Last fall, CIPS held a conference on AUKUS, the defence agreement among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The conference proceedings have now been published as a themed issue of International Journal, Canada’s pre-eminent outlet for international affairs and global policy analysis.

Designed to deter Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific, AUKUS both reflects and reinforces ongoing strategic shifts in the region and beyond. And it is this long game that we should keep in mind as we see observe the two-year old pact facing multiple political complications in the U.S. Congress.

Dubbed “the most important security alliance America forged in decades,” AUKUS in fact arose from an Australian idea to bring the three countries’ defence industries closer together. Organizationally, the partnership is set up into two pillars. Pillar 1 deals with transfer of nuclear submarine technology among the partners, with an eye on developing and producing a fleet of nuclear-powered “AUKUS submarines” for use by both the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. AUKUS Pillar 2 still awaits a major news conference but is known to revolve around other advanced (but non-nuclear) defence technologies such as hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. What the pact therefore offers is a series of megaprojects in a technical sense – massive, complex ventures that take decades and cost billions of dollars. We are also talking about sustained joint involvement of diverse ministries and public agencies – a whole-of-government approach – within, as well as across, the three nations.

For the partnership to begin to work as advertised, U.S. lawmakers in Congress must first pass three key authorizations. One is a Canadian-style exemption for Australia and the UK from Washington’s export control regime, such that sensitive defence technologies can be shared more swiftly. The other two authorizations are for the sale of Virginia-class submarines to Australia and for Australian participation in the US submarine industrial base. (Here, the key roadblock is a group of Senate Republicans who want Congress to put America first, meaning spend additional monies on US submarine production so that it can more easily absorb the AUKUS deal.)

Importantly, support for AUKUS is not confined to the three member states. Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have all greeted the pact as a welcome contribution to the Indo-Pacific security order.


Predictable and predicted, these legislative snarl-ups are not fatal to the pact and will likely be resolved sooner than many think. But what about a Trump – or Trumpist – comeback in 2024? The stakes of the presidential elections could not be higher. The possibility of civil disorder is real, as is a sharp turn towards authoritarianism. More Trumpism would also mean more quasi-isolationism and unilateralism in foreign policy, possibly including withdrawal of support to Ukraine and NATO against Putin’s Russia.

Yet, even in this extreme scenario, AUKUS would likely survive. Few causes today unite the U.S. political class – from traditional Republicans to MAGA-style populists to all sorts of Democrats – as effectively as opposition to China’s rise. Add to this a long-standing bipartisan desire for the strongest possible military, and we have good reasons to expect continued investment in the trilateral partnership as a means of countering Beijing’s bid to expand its sphere of influence.

Canberra and London will stay the course, too. In Australia, the main political parties are united in boosting the pact’s benefits while minimizing its risks and costs. In the UK, where Labour is likely to win the next election, AUKUS is solid because it fulfils the nation’s long-standing foreign policy goals: a “special relationship” with the US and a meaningful contribution to global security.

Importantly, support for AUKUS is not confined to the three member states. Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have all greeted the pact as a welcome contribution to the Indo-Pacific security order. The same goes for Canada and New Zealand, who are already in the intelligence-pooling Five Eyes partnership with AUKUS nations. In fact, now that Washington officials are touting Pillar 2’s “open door” policy, some of these countries – perhaps even France – could soon be lining up to formally join at least some of the pact’s policy processes.

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Wind in the sails of the trilateral partnership is blowing from India, too. Rather than voicing concerns about nuclear non-proliferation and regional arms racing, New Delhi continues to tacitly support the partnership. This is crucial for the long-term success of AUKUS because the strategically nonaligned India has considerable power to make or break any U.S.-led strategy for deterring China. An aspect of this power is presently on display over Ukraine: New Delhi’s unwillingness to join Western sanctions against Moscow is one of the many reasons why Putin continues to wage his war.

The region’s other major players, including key ASEAN states such as Indonesia, Malaysia and (the US treaty ally) Thailand, are much more wary about the pact. Yet the accelerating US-China rivalry will continue to push them out of non-alignment and into making a strategic choice. Just a few days ago, we saw this process at work in Hanoi, where President Biden and his Vietnamese hosts held a press conference to remind the world that former foes can become strategic partners of the “highest tier.”

AUKUS indeed faces political challenges today, and the next year may bring even deeper problems. Implementation plans will change for other reasons as well. However, the prevailing geopolitical winds portend rather well for the future of the pact.

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