UK membership of the new alliance was ill-judged, writes Michael Burleigh
In September the US, Australia and UK agreed the so-called AUKUS alliance, although a defence industrial agreement was the most important part of it. Australia’s so-called Liberal prime minister, Scott Morrison, underhandedly cancelled a contract with France’s Naval Group to supply twelve Barracuda-class, diesel -electric submarines in favour of US Virginia-class, nuclear-propelled ones. The French were especially incensed since they’d been fully capable of supplying nuclear boats, had they been requested, to replace Australia’s six ageing Collins-class fleet. France recalled its Australian and US ambassadors, but left Catherine Colonna in London as a pointed expression of deep contempt for the “fifth wheel on the carriage” – a piratical irrelevance.
On one level “Aukusgate” is much ado about nothing; namely a shabbily executed shift from one naval contractor to another, allegedly because of cost blowouts and technical glitches. That monetary hit will eventually be repaired once Canberra compensates Paris with $2 billion.
Preferring Washington and London to France is par for the course among Australian conservatives. We should recall it was Kevin Rudd’s Labour government that commissioned the French deal back in 2009. While Liberals would have preferred Trump to Biden as US president, they work with what they’ve got. They are deeply embedded in Tory Britain too, with former foreign minister and high commissioner to the UK Alexander Downer as chairman of Policy Exchange, and ex-prime minister Tony Abbott on the Board of Trade. Let’s not even list all the right-wing Antipodean bruisers employed by Murdoch, or by GBTV (whose CEO is one Angelos Frangopoulos, who spent two decades helming Sky News Australia).
For the UK, the deal might mean contracts for Rolls-Royce to supply submarine nuclear reactors – but more importantly AUKUS is the first spasm of “Global Britain”, meaning alliances with anyone other than the neighbouring European Union (excepting its ideologically cognate Visegrád Group of course). In reality, the UK has a very modest presence in Asia-Pacific compared to France, which has 1.65 million nationals and 7,000 troops there. However, AUKUS means Britain has acquired a kind of Australian proxy to augment its episodic naval presence.
More importantly so has the US, which can at least cite a defence alliance (since 1951) with Australia, though for the time being the Royal Australian Navy controls the dispositions of its own fleet. The Americans will have another eight nuclear powered-boats, which will operate in deep seas and at long range in its undeclared struggle for Western Pacific hegemony with China. AUKUS supplements the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Washington has crafted with India and Japan as well as Australia, though America’s operational expectations of Canberra have been left deliberately opaque in this new agreement.
The first of these new submarines will not be delivered until 2040. That might be optimistic since both the US and UK submarine industries are working at full capacity producing their own next-generation boats, and Australia has neither a nuclear nor shipbuilding sector worth mentioning. That optimistic date also leaves a twenty-year interval in which Australia will be very vulnerable, even assuming it leases a spare nuclear sub from the US for part of this interim. The time lag involved raises other questions about Australia.
It is unlikely that Liberals will be in power in Australia throughout that period. Short spells in office have been the lot of both Conservative and leftist prime ministers since the days of Bob Hawke (Labor, eight years) or John Howard (Liberal, eleven years). Kevin Rudd (Labor) had a total of two years and 83 days in two spells, with three years of Julia Gillard in the middle. Tony Abbott (Liberal) lasted one year and 262 days. Malcolm Turnbull (Liberal) who ousted him had two years and 343 days, only to be ejected (through another internal putsch) by his Treasurer “ScoMo”, who has been in office for just over three years.
Some in Australia are implacably opposed to civil and military nuclear power, are mindful of being signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and do not want wars, hot or cold, with China – by far the country’s largest export market for its commodities
Some in Australia are implacably opposed to civil and military nuclear power, are mindful of being signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and do not want wars, hot or cold, with China – by far the country’s largest export market for its commodities. Having nuclear submarines entails a lot of infrastructure that Australians might well oppose on other grounds. Although the current Labor leader Anthony Albanese endorsed it, both former Labor PM Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull denounced AUKUS, with Turnbull accusing Morrison of being a serial liar – and not just in dealing with Macron.
So what are the wider international implications of AUKUS? Chinese indignation sits uneasily with Beijing’s constant probing of its maritime boundaries, from militarised popup islands in the South China Sea to aggressive overflights of Taiwan. Demonstrating a pan-global hypersonic missile capability twice this year (though the FT only revealed it in October) was an obvious response by a superpower, which already has the world’s largest navy. Such missiles are intended as a warning to the US navy’s carrier groups. It is also very likely that China will move to beef up its anti-submarine capabilities, hitherto a weak point in the PLA Navy. The Pentagon claims China is going to quintuple its stockpiles of strategic nuclear warheads, from roughly 200 to 1,000.
The AUKUS alliance also left two of the other “Five Eyes” powers (Canada and New Zealand) out in the cold, though the fetishisation of Five Eyes only grips spy groupies ignorant of the Club de Berne – the less publicised intelligence-sharing alliance consisting of the EU27, Norway, Switzerland and Israel, as well as the UK’s SIS. New Zealand is deeply suspicious of nuclear armaments (which are banned from its ports) and in any case is much more focused on the southern rather than northern, Pacific rather than Australia. As for Canada, the wimpish Justin Trudeau isn’t the kind of guy who wants nuclear-powered subs either.
China will continue to exploit fractures within the ten nation ASEAN alliance (it has Burma and Cambodia inside and onside already) while seeking admission to the trans-Pacific trading partnership, CPTPP, which Britain is also desperate to join. That overlaps with China’s own rival RCEP trade bloc, to which Australia already belongs. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have expressed concerns that AUKUS will lead to a nuclear-fuelled armed race in their region, as has Singapore. That race is certainly hotting up, with Japan upping its defence spending to two per cent of GDP (an enormous sum) to include aircraft carriers, nuclear subs and missiles, while South Korea has successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Leaving aside North Korea, which immediately demonstrated a railway-launched ballistic missile, one should note the deep hostility between Seoul and Tokyo. The more this huge region brims with sophisticated weapons platforms, the greater the likelihood of an accident: as when ships or planes collide, or a submarine crashes into some underwater obstacle as happened in early October with the USS Connecticut, which hit a man-made fishing reef.
Although China huffs and puffs about containment, its realists know that the alliances the US is assembling in AsiaPacific involve countries with strained histories – see Japan above – where vast sea distances mean it would be very easy for a “member” to claim, like Chamberlain on the Czechs, that Taiwan is a “faraway country of which we know nothing” – especially if China simply elected to seize one or other of Taiwan’s many distant uninhabited islands to make its sovereign point. Beijing also knows that international big business continues to pour money into China, almost regardless of the alarmist guff in western newspapers with their Boy’s Own photos of naval exercises and the like. Goldman Sachs does not view the world through the armchair warrior optics of the Daily Mail, Telegraph or WSJ.
Then there is France and the EU. A righteous clash with Anglo-Saxon powers will do no harm to President Macron’s re-election chances this April, especially as a $6 billion deal to sell Mirage fighter jets to India came on the heels of the $66 billion debacle with Canberra. Biden hastily apologised to France for the slight and doubtless will hasten to bolster France’s flagging Barkhane campaign in the Sahel belt in Africa. He is also smart enough to realise that many of America’s core strategic objectives towards China (in digital, trade, AI and so on) can only be realised with the cooperation of the EU, the world’s largest and richest trade bloc. That is why they agreed at the G20 to rescind the steel to Harley Davidson mutual tariffs.
French relations with the faux Gaullists in Britain will not be so easily repaired since there is zero trust already, notwithstanding the fact that, since the Lancaster House Agreement in 2010, France has been fêted by Conservatives as Britain’s closest security partner in Europe. If France can cause Britain grief in Europe, it will, though it is important to acknowledge that the smaller Benelux states often have more clout in the EU than Brexiters imagine and what German policy will be remains an unknown quantity after Merkel.
Biden also gave France the green light to beef up the European quest for “strategic autonomy”, which would relieve America of the financial burden of defending Europe at a time when Democrats and Republicans are solely focused on the risen China
Biden also gave France the green light to beef up the European quest for “strategic autonomy”, which would relieve America of the financial burden of defending Europe (against Russia) at a time when both Democrats and Republicans are solely focused on the risen China. The British may have always resisted the idea of a European Army, but their greed for procurement contracts and joint projects will outlive their exit from the bloc. Another complication is that many of their weapons systems, like the Brimstone missile, are actually made by pan-European multinationals: in this case MBDA which is run by a Frenchman.
The primary obstacle to European strategic independence is from the more Atlanticist Baltic and Visegrád states but, judging from recent elections in the Czech Republic and polling elsewhere, the days of ultra-conservatives such as Orbán in Hungary and Morawiecki in Poland may be numbered as their opponents combine in progressive blocs. However, the insistence of so many countries on maintaining their own defence industries, alongside weaknesses in heavy airlifting and intraoperability, means that pan-European forces (with a theoretical 1.3 million troops under arms) are a couple of decades away.
The biggest push towards European strategic autonomy came after the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his erratic and insulting mercantilism. Asian allies were shocked to be treated with the crudity of a mob boss demanding they pay for the American military presence. The nub of the problem for the Europeans, like everyone else, is to decide whether Trump was an eccentric anomaly or an augury of more fundamental decline. AUKUS
Should Trump emerge victorious in 2024, further entrenching the atmosphere of civil war and the politics of vengeance, then it is very likely that Europe will further distance itself from what is manifestly no longer a properly functioning democracy. In those circumstances, Europe would be justified in adding the US to the problematic states it has to negotiate its way around through a similar mix of caution and commerce that it already brings to its dealings with autocratic China, Russia, Iran and Turkey. Around Europe, many are adding the UK to that dismal list and the AUKUS deal has not helped.
Michael Burleigh is a Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas, a university-based think tank, and his recent books include “Populism: Before and After the Pandemic” and “Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder” both published this year