17 September 2021

AUKUS is a victory for freedom, democracy and the rule of law

By Rohan Watt

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have embarked on the most important development in Western security arrangements since the formation of NATO, leaving their Five Eyes and EU partners scrambling. The Aukus deal is a renewed commitment to uphold freedom, democracy, and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific – it’s also a strong signal to China before next week’s meeting of the ‘Quad’ of Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The agreement, announced earlier this week, represents a significant step up in the security relationship between the three allies and demonstrates the importance of shared values among friends. It is the West’s first serious response to China’s increasingly antagonistic behaviour in the South China Sea and the broader Indo-Pacific.

AUKUS promises to deliver greater joint capabilities and interoperability between the three partners, with a focus on sharing cyber, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies. Australia will receive technology and support to build its first fleet of nuclear submarines as part of the deal – the first nation apart from Britain to gain access to US nuclear propulsion technology since 1958

In time this will be seen as both a defining moment for the Biden presidency and is a significant win for the UK and Australia. For other nations in the Indo-Pacific, it will be interpreted as a renewed commitment to upholding international law and norms of territorial sovereignty.

For the Australians, the deal means cancelling an existing £65 billion contract with the French to build diesel-powered submarines to replace their existing fleet of aging Collins class boats. It was thought politically impossible to introduce nuclear powered subs when the contract was awarded in 2016.  The French government has understandably taken it badly, with foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian describing the cancellation as a ‘stab in the back’. The deal also completely overshadows the EU Indo-Pacific strategy announced today.

Perhaps the most surprising development is the further elevation of Australia as a middle power with real bite on the global stage. Despite being a country of only 25 million people, they have handled their closest international relationships with aplomb – securing significant concessions in the UK-Australia trade deal, Boris Johnson inviting them to the G7 in June, and now opening access to extraordinarily advanced military technology. Clearly, key allies view Canberra as both a trustworthy and able partner.

And yet, it has not been an easy rise for the antipodeans. While this latest deal will force China to reconsider its assertive posture in its near region, Beijing’s recent attitude toward recalcitrant states has been ruthless.

During the pandemic, for instance, China banned Australian coal imports after the Morrison government called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. When Australia banned Huawei from providing 5G technology for its national network, China imposed anti-dumping measures and punitive duties on Australian barley, beef, and wine. Australia has managed to find alternative export markets, but the immediate effects were dire for producers.

The UK must prepare for similar retaliation. If Britain wants to stand up for the ideas it gave the world, it must be prepared to face an increasingly belligerent Chinese state.

The next steps for the three allies are likely to include regional engagement, decisions about colocation or joint fleets, and the possibility of new ports on the doorstep of the South China Sea to service these new nuclear subs. This will create strategic challenges for Britain, and it must proactively bring along its Indo-Pacific partners. 

The agreement is the strongest response so far to China’s behaviour in the Indo-Pacific and its continued efforts to remake the global order. It seems the Biden administration has finally demonstrated it is serious about reassuming a global leadership role for the US, despite the bungled exit from Afghanistan. Some analysts have suggested their exit from the Middle East was to give them the bandwidth to deal with the China problem.

With the Quad alliance due to meet next week, the US has another opportunity to bolster its pivot to the region and build its efforts to contain Chinese expansionism. China can now see that its so-called ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy and its agenda in the South China Sea have triggered a strong response, but beyond angry rhetoric it is not clear how it will respond to the new agreement.

Strategically, Australia’s geography combined with the technological contributions of the US and the UK makes the deal an obvious bulwark against growing concerns of Chinese influence in the region. But it is also a win for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law more broadly. With the restoration of the US as a global leader willing to work with its partners to uphold these values the world is a safer and freer place. The challenge now is to bring the rest of the region along for the journey.

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Rohan Watt is a former adviser to an Australian cabinet minister and is now a DPhil candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.