By Hugh Nikolovski
The recent announcement of a trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom known as AUKUS has wide-reaching implications for regional security in the Indo-Pacific. This agreement has set Australia on a path to potentially acquire nuclear powered submarines, which in total could cost between $120 and $180 billion. The importance of this deal, the issues it will raise, and the responses of states within Australia’s local region were discussed at an event hosted by La Trobe University titled “The AUKUS Deal: Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific”. The event showcased the views of four experts in the field.
This first of these speakers was Professor Peter Dean, Director at the Defence and Security Institute at The University of Western Australia. For the Professor, AUKUS represents the most important pivot point in Australia’s strategic policy since the Second World War. He argues that Australia now understands it must make the uncomfortable choice it has avoided for so long, and choose between China, its largest trading partner, or the United States with which it has an alliance. AUKUS therefore, has firmly placed Australia’s choice on the side of the United States and more broadly, those countries which support a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Professor Dean welcomed the announced nuclear submarines, however he stressed that currently there is a lot of uncertainty around how Australia will attain them and a possibility that it will not. Nevertheless, he noted that such submarines would be useful for defending Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which is the largest in the world. On this point another of the speakers, Maria Rost Rublee, disagreed. She pointed out that Australia will be receiving at most eight nuclear submarines whereas research has shown at least twenty-four will be needed to allow for effective defence.
Maria, who specialises in nuclear and maritime security at Monash University, spoke second. She emphasised the awkward position AUKUS places Australia in, as potentially the first non-nuclear weapons state to possess nuclear submarines. This raises both legal issues in terms of how the International Atomic Energy Agency will monitor Australia’s use of highly enriched uranium to power the submarines, and practical concerns as to how Australia will attain this material. Although Australia has not ruled out developing its own nuclear industry to produce this, Maria argued it is much more likely that it will follow in the United Kingdom’s footsteps and purchase it from the United States. While this option is much more feasible it will put a significant part of Australia’s naval capability essentially under the control of the United States. Thus, Australia will further continue down the path of ceding its independent strategic policy to another power.
The following speaker, Natalie Sambhi the Executive Director of Verve Research, discussed how AUKUS has been perceived throughout South-East Asia. She says there have been three camps of responses. States which have welcomed it such as: The Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore. States which have expressed concern towards it including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cambodia. The final camp is those states which have stayed silent on the issue consisting of: Thailand, Myanmar, Brunei, and Laos. These differences in perception reflect the complicated relationship the region has with China, as many of these states have border disputes in the South China Sea, but also rely on it for trade and funding for infrastructure projects. Natalie argued that these internal tensions help to explain ASEAN’s silence on AUKUS, but also suggest a growing need for ASEAN to work through its issues or risk becoming irrelevant.
Lastly Dr Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer at Massey University, discussed how New Zealand and Pacific nations have responded to AUKUS. Despite Jacinda Arden being the first world leader Scott Morrison told about the agreement, New Zealand’s initial response was quite muted with Arden simply emphasising New Zealand’s position as a Pacific nation that is committed to the preservation of peace, security, and the rules-based order. However, Dr Powels also highlighted that although New Zealand has a very clear and bipartisan anti-nuclear stance, there is potential for New Zealand to engage with AUKUS in terms of technology sharing, especially in the cyber domain. She also mentioned that many Pacific nations have not commented on the AUKUS agreement and that those that did have ranged from welcoming to cautious in their responses. Importantly for Australia was the Fijian Prime Ministers statement which pointed out that if countries can spend this much money on issues of defence, they can afford to spend it on helping fight climate change. How Australia performs at the upcoming COP26 Glascow summit, Dr Powels argues could be quite influential in how Pacific nations respond to AUKUS.
The full discussion can be heard here.
Hugh Nikolovski is an AWPR Intern and International Studies student at RMIT