AUKUS and fears of a regional arms race

  • The Australian submarine deal is part of the AUKUS security agreement Washington, Canberra and London, first announced in September 2021.
  • The leaders of the tripartite pact have insisted that AUKUS is not intended to be adversarial towards any other nation. But few doubt that the alliance’s greatest concern is China.
  • But the deal has also worried some of Australia’s largest regional allies, with Indonesia and Malaysia questioning whether it could prompt a nuclear arms race in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific.
  • All three countries have insisted the deal is defensive in nature although having nuclear-powered submarines would give Australia the capability to launch attacks or counterattacks in the event of a conflict.
  • Beijing sees the submarine acquisition as a “dangerous” provocation designed to hem China in, but analysts say it should perhaps be more concerned about future collaborative initiatives involving AUKUS, which foresees the allies working together on hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence and cyber warfare.
  • In a joint statement announcing the deal, the three leaders said that their nations had “stood shoulder to shoulder” for more than a century to protect “peace, stability, and prosperity around the world” and also in the Indo-Pacific region. “We believe in a world that protects freedom and respects human rights, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states, and the rules-based international order. The steps we are announcing today will help us to advance these mutually beneficial objectives in the decades to come,” they said.
  • The deal has also faced criticism in the US where the chair of the influential US Senate armed services committee, Democrat Jack Reed, warned Biden in December that selling nuclear-powered submarines to Australia could undermine US naval prowess.
  • Referencing the current “darkening clouds in international affairs”, Blaxland of the Australian National University notes that the AUKUS plan is “ambitious, costly” and not without risks. “But these are challenging times. It’s an important plank for bolstering resilience and deterrence and, in turn, reducing the likelihood of adventurism,” he says. “It’s often said that weakness invites adventurism, even aggression.”