Deleterious Effect of AUKUS on the Asia-Pacific

With the rise of China’s economic, political and military power, the Western countries are concerned and are devising plans to counter it. The US and like-minded nations are taking practical steps against it, especially in the military domain. The latest of these efforts is the signing of a tri-party act by Australia, the US, and the UK (AUKUS) involving nuclear submarines. The signing of this agreement can intensify the arms race between China and the West. At a time when political tensions are increasing among these countries, the dangers and risks of nuclear submarines will further increase security threats in the region.

Australia-UK-US Nuclear Submarines Deal

The agreement with Australia will help the country to deploy nuclear-powered submarines from the US and the UK. The pact, which also includes sharing of cyber capabilities and under-sea technologies, aims to build Australian deterrence to counter the threat posed by China in the Pacific region. Australia, in the past, had vowed not to choose between the US and China. However, with the deal, it has taken a firm stance against China. After implementing the agreement, Australia will become an active player of the US strategy against China in the Pacific region. Although the submarines will not carry nuclear weapons, their nuclear propulsion enhances their significance and threat to China by raising the naval power balance in the region. The deployment of submarines by Australia is both an increase in military capability and signalling to China of its growing security alliance with and reliance on the US. The UK is also projecting its strategic relevance globally post-Brexit.

The agreement is in line with the US strategy to augment its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. As the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan and scaling down in the Middle East, it is increasing its military might in the Pacific to confront China. The US has formed various types of military arrangements with the regional countries against China. They include Quad consisting of Japan, Australia, India, and the US for increased security cooperation; Malabar naval exercises for increased maritime preparedness, and the increasing role of the Five Eyes alliance for intelligence sharing between the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand on China.

The US has improved its strategic nuclear rivalry with China by pledging to station its nuclear submarines in Australia. Official reaction from the Chinese Foreign Ministry has criticized the pact claiming that it undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race. China has referred to the signing of the agreement as the Cold War mentality.

The signing parties claim that the pact will “protect shared values and promote security and prosperity” in the region. The move, however, is going to impair the stability, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

France and India in the Picture

France and India are two counties that the AUKUS deal has impacted. France is the casualty of the AUKUS agreement as its $66 billion agreement with Australia for supplying 12 diesel submarines has been scrapped. As a result, France’s role as a global power in the Pacific has also suffered. However, it will strengthen its position as a significant stakeholder by becoming a proactive player in the region.

India, on the other hand, has also become an essential partner in the US strategy against China. It is an integral part of various US-led arrangements. Heightened tensions and arms race between the US and China will include equipping and strengthening the Indian Navy down the road. Australia’s deployment of nuclear power submarines will require China to do course correction or up the ante. This will allow Indian military planners to lobby for more submarines to counter the Chinese threat. The Indian government has approved a proposal to purchase six conventional submarines for its navy. France’s Naval Group, a public shareholding company that earlier signed the contract with Australia, is a major contender to build these submarines. After the latest development, the importance of this partnership with India will increase for both France and India. The AUKUS has already created debate in India on seeking French help in building nuclear-powered attack submarines. A Franco-Indian deal similar to the AUKUS will show the relevance of both countries in the region, which the AUKUS may have galvanised. The Naval Group has already partnered with Indian state-owned Mazagon Dock Ltd. (MDL) to build six Scorpène-class vessels in India, but it met a controversy when the sensitive data on the submarine was leaked in Australian media.

Strategic Balance in South Asia

India currently operates a ballistic missile (SSBM) Arihant and 14 diesel-electric attacks (SSK) submarines. It has used one nuclear-powered (SSN) Chakra on lease from Russia. It is developing three more SSBMs of the Arihant class and three diesel-electric submarines. It will also get Chakra III on lease from Russia in 2025. In addition to the above, India plans to build the S-5 class of ballistic missile submarines after developing the Arihant class, six nuclear-powered, and 18 diesel-electric submarines in the future. The S-5 class submarines will be more potent than the Arihant class, but the project faces delays. A strategic environment in the Pacific also pushes India to accelerate work on its planned nuclear and conventional submarines. Once planned submarines are realised, India will be operating a powerful fleet of submarines. This will alter the strategic balance in South Asian regions with implications for Pakistan.

Australia’s planned deployment of nuclear-powered submarines with the US help has made its power competition with China more evident. It increases the risk of conflict in the region and assigns a prominent role to Australia. Overall, the increase in strategic nuclear weapons and platforms would make the world a more dangerous and unsafe place in the future. Post Covid-19 world needs more economic security than ever, rather than the overt militarisation due to geopolitical contestations in Asia.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is an Islamabad-based defense analyst. He writes on military capabilities, national security, and defense issues. He tweets at @Samranali6.

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