By Robert Patman
If good strategy is about effectively relating means to ends, the recently announced trilateral security partnership Aukus – Australia, the UK, and the US – seems unlikely to fulfil expectations.
A joint statement by its three leaders, guided by their “enduring [democratic] ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order”, pledged to deepen “security and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region” to “protect” these values and promote stability and prosperity in the most dynamic region in the world.
As a first initiative under Aukus, the US and UK have committed to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for its navy.
While the perceived threats to the Indo-Pacific are not identified in the joint statement, there is little doubt Aukus is intended to counter the assertive foreign policy of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime in China.
Since 2012, Chinese foreign policy appears to have taken a more belligerent turn. Beijing has bolstered its claims to 90 per cent of the disputed South China Sea and firmly rejected a 2016 ruling by the Hague Court of Arbitration – in a case brought by the Philippines – that Chinese claims in the South China Sea lacked foundation.
Moreover, during the past 18 months, China has condemned Australia for questioning its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, stepped up patrols around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, clashed with India in the Himalayas, launched regular incursions into Taiwan’s airspace, and cracked down on the once partly autonomous region of Hong Kong.
However, China is not the only threat to the international rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. In February, a military junta overthrew the democratically elected government in Myanmar, and both Beijing and Russia are now providing military and economic assistance to its brutal military dictatorship.
While China and some of its authoritarian friends are certainly throwing their weight around in the Indo-Pacific, it is not clear that an enhanced security pact between three English-speaking states – one of which is not located in the region – will halt this trend.
The Indo-Pacific region is vast. It contains 60 per cent of the world’s population and is home to economic powerhouses like Japan and South Korea and the world’s fastest-growing economies, including China, Vietnam, and India.
The fundamental problem of Aukus is that it is based on a binary view of the Indo-Pacific in which the future of the region will be determined by a great power contest involving the US and China.
According to this view, the Biden administration and its two most loyal allies, the UK and Australia, will coordinate and boost their military involvement in the Indo-Pacific and therefore counterbalance the growing China threat.
This claim is problematic for several reasons. First, it exaggerates the capacity of great powers in the 21st century to shape the destiny of large and diverse regions like the Indo-Pacific.
China and the US find themselves in an increasingly interconnected world whose growing array of problems do not know borders.
Second, the Aukus approach does not take account of the Indo-Pacific and European nations’ different security and economic interests in confronting China.
Just because states like Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam are deeply concerned about China’s attempts to dominate the Indo-Pacific, it does not mean they will automatically back Aukus.
Similarly, the likes of Germany and France, allies of the US with significant interests in the region, cannot be impressed by being excluded from the three-way discussions that led to Aukus.
Third, states in the Indo-Pacific and beyond are sceptical AUKUS can defend the international rules-based order in the region when it is clear populist politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have been reluctant to confront apparent Russian interference in American and British politics.
Fourth, the provision of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia does not sit comfortably with the aspirations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). While such nuclear cooperation may be permissible in legal terms, it could set a precedent for other states to follow.
In short, there is a real risk that Aukus will divide the widespread opposition to the expansionist policies of China (and Russia) and play into the hands of Xi Jinping’s China-centric regime.
Already, Chinese state media commentators are reminding external audiences two of the three Aukus states carry some historical baggage, referencing the UK’s imperial past and America’s ill-fated involvement in the Vietnam War.
It is clear therefore that upholding an international rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific will demand more than Aukus can deliver and will require nothing less than a major multilateral diplomatic initiative to maximise support for a declaration of principles that leaves Beijing (and Moscow) in no doubt about the limits of the permissible in the region.
Strategically, New Zealand has not been sidelined by the emergence of Aukus, but its emergence highlights the need for Wellington and like-minded partners to intensify diplomatic efforts to impress upon China that the vast majority of states in the Indo-Pacific region will oppose any attempts to rewrite the international rules-based order.