December 9, 2021

Australia – Preparing to Take on China: Part I

The AUKUS will reshape the geopolitics and global military strategy of the major powers of the world.
Keywords: AUKUS, Military, Australia, USA, Geopolitics, Strategic, Power, China, NATO, Cooperation, Submarine
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The Australia, United Kingdom and United States (AUKUS) declaration of a tripartite military cooperation is the major strategic development of this decade. The AUKUS will reshape the geopolitics and global military strategy of the major powers of the world. A new paradigm will emerge and countries, within the Indo-Pacific and beyond, would be forced to reevaluate their national objectives and strategies.

Although the AUKUS is China-centric, it will have repercussions even for the European Union, NATO in Europe and Atlantic nations on the other side of the world.

President Joe Biden calls the AUKUS “a next-generation partnership built on a strong foundation of proven trust” which will enhance the growing network of partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Over the next 18 months, we will work together to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve this.  This will include an intense examination of what we need to do to exercise our nuclear stewardship responsibilities here in Australia,” President Biden said.

The AUKUS is the newest coalition of nations of the Indo-Pacific which already has the Quad (India, Japan, USA and Australia), ASEAN and the Five Eyes (USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand).

As part of the agreement, AUKUS will work together to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines armed with conventional weapons. The vessels would be constructed in Adelaide, Australia. Three nations called the AUKUS as a fundamental decision that will bind them together for generations.

The September 15 declaration of AUKUS, which surprised everyone, was the outcome of sustained negotiation of many months between the top political and military leadership of the partner nations.

AUKUS marks the beginning of a new cold war. The US is reviving the  strategy which helped them win against the USSR. First Quad and now AUKUS is in line with SEATO and CENTO. The new strategy is following the same pattern of linking allies across the region to deter adversaries from expanding. India is expected to manage Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean and Australia will take care of the South China Sea.

Nuclear Submarine and Australia

On September 16, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the cancellation of the Attack Submarine programme with France and as part of the first initiative of AUKUS, the creation of a nuclear-powered, US-supplied submarine fleet.

The French naval shipbuilding giant Naval Group (Earlier DCNS), also a contractor for six Indian conventional Kalavari Class (Scorpene) submarines, won a competitive bid to build 12 Shortfin Barracuda submarines, based on a French nuclear submarine type, the first of which is expected to become operational in the 2030s.  The Barracuda aree to replace the ageingCollins-class submarines.

France reacted to the unexpected Australian decision to renege on the contract by recalling its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra on September 17. After a telephonic conversation between the French President and his American counterpart, on September 22, France agreed to send back its envoy to Washington. In the joint statement, the US agreed to recognise, the strategic importance of the French and European Union in the Indo-Pacific region.

The submarine deal must be in the pipeline for some time. The announcement was well planned in advance. AUKUS waited for the completion of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. They did not want to provide China with an opportunity to create trouble in Afghanistan through their ally Pakistan.

Non-Proliferation Concerns

The nuclear submarine programme raises valid questions on the Australian non-proliferation stand. The nation is committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The Australian Government states “Eliminating nuclear weapons will take sustained, practical, and incremental steps and requires inclusive processes that engage all states, including those that possess or rely on nuclear deterrence for their security. As a non-nuclear-weapon state, Australia engages with countries to advocate disarmament and non-proliferation and consistently promotes cooperation within existing disarmament architecture based on the cornerstone Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

While operating nuclear-attack submarines, it would be difficult to comply with the provisions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While handling the fissile material, Australia will have to allow inspection of IAEA and any non-compliance would allow the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to take a political stand on the non-compliance. In light of the French reaction to the cancellation of the Shortfin Barracuda programme and the AUKUS stand on China; there can be serious political fallout as a consequence.

Chinese Reaction

As anticipated, China vehemently questioned the nuclear submarine deal on the non-proliferation criteria. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, raising objection to the deal said, it “will gravely undermine regional peace and stability, aggravate the arms race and impair international nuclear non-proliferation efforts.”

“As a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and a party to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty, known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, Australia is now introducing nuclear submarine technology of strategic and military value. The international community, including Australia’s neighbouring countries, has reason to question Australia’s sincerity in honouring its nuclear non-proliferation commitments,” he added.

China called the AUKUS nuclear initiative a “Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow geopolitical perspective” and warned the three partner nations to “stop forming exclusive blocs or cliques.”

Emerging Strategic Framework

Calling the USA as the pre-eminent global military power which will continue to be “our most important strategic partner,” the Australian Defence White Paper, 2016, seeks “to broaden and deepen our alliance with the United States, including by supporting its critical role in underpinning security in our region through the continued rebalance of the United States military forces.”

The paper categorically brings out the need for retaining military superiority in the region and says, “Maintaining Australia’s technological edge and capability superiority over potential adversaries is an essential element of our strategic planning. The capability superiority that Australia has traditionally maintained in the wider region will be challenged by military modernisation. Over the next 20 years, a larger number of regional forces will be able to operate at greater range and with more precision than ever before.”

Talking about China’s military modernisation, the paper says, “The growth in the capability of China’s military forces is the most significant example of regional military modernisation, but other countries are also undertaking extensive modernisation programs.”

Besides the nuclear submarine programme, Australia is expected to acquire Tomahawk cruise missiles for Hobart class destroyers, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (Extended Range) for F/A-18F and F-35A Aircraft, Lightning II  Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (Extended Range), Hypersonic Missiles in collaboration with the USA, Precision Strike guided missiles of 400km range and develop a guided weapons manufacturing enterprise.

These programmes are in sync with the objectives and modernisation plan mentioned in the White Paper of 2016.

Australia – Military Modernisation Plan

According to the 2020 Force Structure Plan, Australia intends to invest $575 billion in defence, including $270 billion in capability investment by the end of this decade. The plan considers the investment necessary for the projection of military power to shape the regional environment, deter actions against Australian interests and increase the ability to respond with effective military force if and when required.

After the release of the White paper of 2016, Australia had plans to invest $195 billion for the decade to 2025-26. It has decoupled its defence spending from the national GDP. This would allow the country to invest in defence irrespective of the status of the economy. This is clear evidence of national security taking precedence in national planning as the country  anticipates the possibility of armed conflict.

Out of $270 billion, 28 per cent will go for the maritime domain, 24 per cent to the air domain, 20 per cent to space and the rest will be used to enhance capabilities on land, cyber, communications etc.

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Rohit Srivastava

Rohit Srivastava is a Delhi based journalist with over a decade of experience in defence and strategic affairs. His areas of interest are national security planning, defence industry, technology and warfare.

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