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Awkward AUKUS: What’s in a name?

By Mason Richey

- Article available online


The newly announced Australia-United Kingdom-United States strategic security alliance (AUKUS) has received considerable attention over the last two weeks. Much of that attention focused on Australian abrogation of a diesel-electric attack submarine contract with France, and its replacement by a nuclear-powered attack submarine deal with the US and the UK. France considers this a brutal and humiliating betrayal – especially by the US and Australia – not least because of the deal’s negotiation and rollout, which were kept secret from France until the last minute. The effect this diplomatic dispute has on the transatlantic alliance is important, of course, and the military value of the new nuclear submarine deal is also fascinating as concerns how it affects China’s regional maritime ambitions. But arguably the biggest impact of the whole episode is that Australia has made a huge strategic bet on a seriously tightened alliance with the US in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

In 2020, I wrote a journal article for the International Spectator explaining some of the emerging systemic security challenges in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. In short, the article argued that hedging strategies by Indo-Asia-Pacific states would become tendentially less feasible as US-China great power competition ramped up, while growing regional multi-polarity would present power-balancing difficulties. Consequently, one should expect a greater likelihood of pathological balancing, namely in the form of buck-passing or chain-ganging among US allies in the region.

I concluded that the defence-dominant nature of the Indo-Asia-Pacific (due to geography, comparative military force size/posture and technology, nuclear deterrence) meant that most US allies would likely buck-pass rather than chain-gang. I left open the possibility, however, that Australia might be an exception. Canberra’s strong and growing military alliance with the US at the time, as well as its increased interest in the Quad, were two reasons. Another reason was the persistent bureaucratic wrangling between Australia’s Department of Defence (DOD, solicitous of Washington as security guarantor) and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT, focused on trade with China), which opened the possibility of Canberra tilting toward Washington and away from Beijing, if DOD won the day.

The AUKUS alliance – even if it is currently nugatory – clearly shows that this latter eventuality has occurred, not least because China’s heavy-handed, clumsy, punitive imposition of trade sanctions against Australia over the last year kneecapped any possibility of DFAT credibly arguing that trade should take precedence in the trade-vs-security debate with DOD.

Australia’s strategic wager on the US brings with it possibilities for countering China, but also invites risks, including the risk of Australia being chain-ganged into a conflict it neither wants nor for which it is likely prepared. The US does not simply give away nuclear propulsion for submarines – it will expect its Aussie alliance partner sidekick to jump into the fray if and when conflict happens. It is indeed telling that this is the first time the US agreed to share nuclear submarine technology (other than with the UK), and has made it clear that this is a one-off occurrence justified by the extraordinary threat China represents to the US, its partners and the rules-based order both in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and beyond. In short – and this is a bipartisan judgment shared throughout DC – the US is acting like it expects a new Cold War with China. Washington will expect Canberra to act accordingly, including staunch and unflinching support in a potential conflict with Beijing. The chances for chain-ganging in the region have now gone up.

The emergence of AUKUS has clarified an important lesson: the Indo-Asia-Pacific is now the playground of the big powers – in that environment, choices sharpen, and Australia picked a side. I finished my aforementioned International Spectator article with the thought that, for a while at least, Europe’s relative remove from the Indo-Asia-Pacific would give it some time to hedge, adjust to the rigours of great power competition, and prepare a strategy for the Indo-Asia-Pacific. I was too optimistic. As it happens, the official EU Indo-Pacific strategy was published the very day of the big AUKUS reveal, and already it is clearly inadequate to deal with the hard power reality of the Indo-Asia-Pacific. AUKUS has shown to Europe the sharp choices of great power competition. Time is running out to figure out how to play with the big powers.

Mason Richey is Associate Professor of International Politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (Seoul, South Korea).


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