Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) announced an enhanced trilateral security pact called AUKUS in September. The agreement focuses on deepening diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. Looking ahead, what are the implications of the new security partnership?

What is AUKUS?

At its most basic, AUKUS is an agreement among the three countries to increase cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. A key component is technology development through acquiring  nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). The strategic advantage of SSNs over conventionally-powered submarines is that they can stay submerged for much longer without exposing themselves to detection by coming to the surface. SSNs are stealthier than conventional submarines – they operate more quietly, are harder to detect and can carry enough fuel for 30 years of operation. The decision to acquire Tomahawk missiles – which can be fired from either ships or submarines – also marks a major addition to Australia’s capabilities.

The technology-sharing dimension of AUKUS leverages decades of expertise in the US and UK nuclear industries.

Historically, the US has only ever shared this strategic technology with the UK – Australia will be joining an exclusive group of six countries that operate SSNs, and the other six have civilian nuclear power industries and nuclear weapons programs. Australia will be the exception to this historic norm.

The announcement means that the Australian Government is no longer proceeding with procuring French Naval Group Australia (NGA) designed Attack Class submarines – a program estimated at approximately AU$90 billion. As has been well-reported, France is very displeased with the cancellation of its submarine provision arrangement with Australia.

The next steps in relation to the SSNs will involve an 18-month establishment phase – a scoping exercise to determine exactly what could be built where, by whom and when. While the building of SSNs with American and British help could take years to bring direct military dividends, there are immediate symbolic geopolitical impacts.

What are the long-term aspirations behind AUKUS?

According to the Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS, the partnership will promote deeper cooperation on a range of security and defence capabilities, including information and technology sharing. There will also be a deeper integration of security and defence-related science and technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. New economic opportunities will flow from the increased defence spending, training and expansion of naval bases.

The long-term aspirations of AUKUS could see it become a mechanism for a range of parallel investments, academic collaborations, industrial partnerships, workforce secondments and exchanges.

Significantly, the pact includes cooperation in areas such as long-range strike capabilities, cyber warfare, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and underwater systems. Both the UK and the US are working on developing large remotely-controlled underwater vehicles (UUVs) to operate in tandem with human-run platforms, and AUKUS provides a potential opportunity for Australia to integrate into and benefit from these technological developments.

The strategic potential of AUKUS lies in how the new grouping can be leveraged in the long term to share strategic technology, information and expertise to help members deal with the profound technological disruption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and hybrid threats such as cyber-attacks and data theft, supply-chain disruption, disinformation and propaganda, and foreign interference.

Does AUKUS represent a shift in Australian foreign policy?

Arguably, the AUKUS pact does not necessarily represent a significant shift in Australian foreign policy, but rather institutionalises existing relationships to more comprehensively address shared security concerns. In this sense, it augments existing alliances and treaties to deepen security and defence collaboration.

The UK and US are already our long-term strategic and security allies. All three countries are liberal democracies with deep military ties, shared history and common values, and a mutual commitment to an international rules-based order.

All three countries are part of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance forged after the Second World War, along with New Zealand and Canada. The US and Australia are part of the ‘Quad’, which, with Japan and India, has a shared focus on maintaining stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region.

The SSNs certainly suggest a shift in Australia’s approach to securing regional security, if not a recalculation of the challenges being faced. In that respect, the AUKUS security pact is part of a quest for security and stability in increasingly volatile geopolitical times.

What does AUKUS mean for Australia’s regional neighbours?

The response to the AUKUS announcement has had mixed reactions from Australia’s regional neighbours. China has denounced the AUKUS pact – Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the alliance risked “severely damaging regional peace and intensifying the arms race”.

Indonesia and Malaysia have also expressed concerns that nuclear submarines operating in regional waters could contribute to a regional military build-up, raising tensions and making conflict more likely. Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has stated that AUKUS could spark a 'regional arms race'. In contrast, the Philippines and Singapore have been generally supportive of the AUKUS pact, with the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Teodoro Locsin, stating that it addresses a military 'imbalance' in Southeast Asia.

All up…

While AUKUS may not be a paradigm shift for Australian foreign and defence policy, it does represent a significant change in approach. The agreement reflects the increasingly volatile geopolitical environment in the Asia-Pacific region, and the erosion of the international cooperation and globalisation that has underpinned the international system for the past several decades.

The subsuming of economic logic to security logic is increasingly becoming the new operating normal. Australian businesses need to ensure they are actively monitoring the rapidly-changing geopolitical developments in our region, and building in various scenarios and options to their strategic plans.

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