Is AUKUS a Back Door Entry of NATO into the Indo-Pacific?
April 14, 2023 Rajat Ganguly
The Australian government has signed a deal with the US and the UK to buy up to 8 nuclear attack submarines (SSNs). The total package may cost Australian taxpayers upwards of $368 billion. The first three subs (most likely refurbished Virginia class SSNs) are expected to be delivered around the mid- to late-2030s; thereafter, Australia would have the option to procure two more subs from the US. The remaining subs are to be the new Aukus SSNs to be built in Adelaide with British technology.1 Australia has also reportedly agreed to buy 220 Tomahawk cruise missiles after the US State Department approved the sale.2
Why the Reasons Given for the AUKUS Deal Make Little Sense:
The most obvious question that emerges is this context is why did the Australian government decide to go in for this deal? In other words, what is the compelling reason for which the Albanese government agreed to procure eight nuclear attack submarines at great cost? The question is a moot one since the Albanese government’s decision has come from the left field and blindsided many Australians including academics, policymakers, politicians, and the general public alike. The issue has not been vigorously debated within Australia and it was never made a key election issue by either the Liberal or the Labour party.
The main reason behind the decision to procure the nuclear attack submarines is presumably to address the China ‘threat’ as the Australian government has announced.3 But we need to better understand what that threat entails. In the foreseeable future, China is unlikely to pose a serious physical threat to the Australian mainland – that is, the threat of the Chinese military physically invading and occupying the Australian mainland is almost non-existent. If there will be a threat from China, that threat will be more in the cyber, space, and economic domains; hence, it could be argued that Australia’s national security would be better served by spending more money in these areas. The Australian government has also argued, with some merit, that Australia needs a stronger navy (including submarines) to keep the commercial sea lanes of traffic in the Indo-Pacific free from possible PLA Navy (PLAN) disruptions and to enforce freedom of navigation in the high seas, particularly in the South China Sea. But disrupting the commercial sea lanes of traffic is hardly in China’s interest. In fact, China’s economic interests are closely tied to keeping commercial sea traffic moving freely through the IOR, the Strait of Malacca, and the South China Sea. China’s main worry in this context is the Malacca ‘choke point’ dilemma – that is, in the event of heightened tensions with the US, the US navy acting on its own or with strategic partners such as India and Australia could easily blockade the Strait of Malacca, which will cause severe economic problems in China. It is mainly to overcome this dilemma that the Chinese have reclaimed islands in the South China Sea (SCS) and converted them to forward military bases and have entered into several bilateral agreements to build and refurbish ports in the IOR as part of President Xi’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. In any case, the deployment of Australian nuclear attack subs would be seen as a hostile move by China, which would only increase the chances of a major confrontation with the PLAN in the IOR, SCS, and the wider Pacific Ocean; precisely the kind of scenario that Foreign Minister Penny Wong warned all states to avoid.4 Regarding FONOP in the SCS, nuclear attack subs are hardly likely to be needed; the Australian navy does that routinely with the US navy now and will continue to do that in the future.
The AUKUS deal may create some additional problems for Australia. As reported in the press, if the Australian SSNs carry Tomahawk cruise missiles with conventional – and not nuclear – warheads, then Australia will be the first country to have nuclear attack subs with conventional missiles. The six other nations that have nuclear attack subs (US, China, Russia, the UK, France, and India) use them for nuclear deterrence purposes. Nuclear attack subs were designed for stealth and to carry nuclear warheads; this is what makes nuclear deterrence credible. All six nations mentioned above are nuclear weapon states. Australia’s decision to buy nuclear attack subs but fit them with conventional missiles therefore makes little strategic sense. But it does raise another possibility: that Australia will eventually consider fitting these subs with nuclear missiles once the subs have been deployed. Any decision to go for nuclear weapons will create several problems. First, Australia will have to quit the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, or the NPT regime itself will have to be revised to allow more states outside of the P5 to have nuclear weapons. Both options will be highly problematic and will have serious political, legal, moral, and normative consequences not only for Australia but also for the global non-proliferation regime. Second, once Australia inducts the nuclear attack subs, China, North Korea, and perhaps even Russia, may start targeting Australian cities with nuclear weapons based on their assumption that these nuclear subs carry nuclear missiles. As long as Australia maintains its status as a non-nuclear weapon state, no nuclear weapon state will target it with nuclear weapons since this is the absolute ‘no-no’ of international conduct. But this may change as soon as the nuclear attack subs are inducted into service. And finally, if Canberra decides to fit these nuclear attack subs with nuclear weapons, this will have serious consequences for Australia’s ties with immediate Asian neighbours and states around the IOR, many of whom are key economic and commercial partners for Australia. Indonesia has already expressed its worries about the AUKUS deal; other smaller Asian states and states around the IOR are similarly worried that the AUKUS subs may further complicate and destabilize the strategic and security situation in the IOR and Asia-Pacific regions.
Is AUKUS a Back Door Entry of NATO into the Indo-Pacific?
What then could be the ‘real’ reason for the AUKUS deal? It is possible that through AUKUS, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is trying to obtain a foothold in the Indo-Pacific region. The war in Ukraine is essentially now a war between a US-led NATO and Russia. As this war demonstrates, the main aim of NATO to expand into Ukraine (and Georgia for that matter) has been frustrated by the Russian “special military operations”. It has led to the further strengthening of the Russian military and has brought Moscow into a tighter embrace with Beijing. The US along with its NATO allies must now therefore not only confront a militarily more powerful Russia in Europe but also contend with a powerful China in the Asia-Pacific and an emerging China-Russia axis in the Indo-Pacific. America’s own strategic recalibration towards the Indo-Pacific had started in 2011 under the “Pivot to Asia” policy, but Washington now wants more NATO strategic deployment in the region to contend with and contain a militarily assertive and confident China supported by Russia (and possibly Iran and Saudi Arabia). At the recent NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels, attended also by NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea along with the European Union, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that NATO’s strategic mission in the future would be to neutralize the dual threat from Russia and China.5
However, as the war in Ukraine has dragged on for more than a year, it has also caused serious strains among NATO members, most notably between France and Germany (and to a lesser extent Hungary and Turkey) versus the United States, Britain, and the rest of the NATO members. It is now clear that the economic sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union (EU), and NATO on Russia have not affected Russia much. Moscow has continued to sell oil, gas and other resources to China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, and many other nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America without much difficulty. It has also continued to do business with Europe on many products that were deliberately kept out of the sanctions regime. Instead, the sanctions have adversely affected the European economies (particularly the sanctions on cheap Russian oil and gas) already reeling from the impacts of hyperinflation, supply chain disruptions, ongoing Covid pandemic, and a growing refugee burden. The Biden Administration’s alleged sabotaging of the Nord Stream gas pipeline has added to the economic woes in Europe, particularly in Germany.6 The German economy has contracted, unemployment is growing, inflation is at an all-time high, and living conditions have fallen rapidly. A similar scenario is unfolding in France, with street protests against the Macron government’s unpopular decision to raise the retirement age a daily occurrence and growing in intensity. If the Ukraine war continues for another year, mass-scale revolt in Germany and France may occur and may bring down the Scholz and Macron governments. More ominously, it may cause a rapture within NATO. Early sings of impending trouble for NATO can be seen in the comments of President Macron after his recent visit to China to meet with President Xi Jinping: in an interview with Politico on his way back to France from China, President Macron warned that “Europe should reduce its dependency on the United States and avoid getting involved in any conflict between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan.”7
America therefore has little room to manoeuvre. Its plan to strategically surround Russia through Ukraine (and Georgia) has been stymied by the Russian military offensive in Ukraine (and earlier in Georgia). Critics at home and in Europe are also raising uncomfortable questions about the relevance and continued utility and purpose of NATO. A faltering economy and social unrest, both in the United States and in Europe, have further complicated things. On top of that, Washington now must contend with a militarily resurgent Russia and an aggressive and confident China, with the emerging Russia-China economic, political, and strategic axis continuing to grow and strengthen particularly in the IOR. America’s response to the changing strategic scenario has been threefold: to strengthen bilateral strategic ties with states in the Indo-Pacific; to help build and support multilateral institutions, which could be used for strategic purposes; and to encourage the entry of NATO into the Indo-Pacific through the “back door” by utilising strategic partnerships like AUKUS.
In the Indo-Pacific region, the US has worked hard to strengthen bilateral strategic partnerships with an eye on China (and North Korea). The US military has ramped up its presence in northeast Asia and carried out war games with the South Korean forces. It has also increased military presence around Taiwan and President Biden and other top American military and civilian leaders have repeatedly stated America’s intention to militarily defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China. American leaders have further reassured Japan about the continued relevance of America’s extended deterrence to counter the provocative behaviour of North Korea; Washington has also not opposed Japan’s decision to significantly increase its defence spending. In Southeast Asia, the US government has recently signed an agreement with the Philippines for four new military camps where American soldiers could be deployed indefinitely.8 Strategic contacts with Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia have increased and Washington has finally decided to open an embassy in Vanuatu to counter China’s growing presence in the south Pacific. America’s strategic ties with India has been on an upswing over the past two decades and the US has now emerged as the second largest supplier of advanced weapons and support systems to the Indian military. Regular military exercises are held, and the Washington and Delhi have signed a military logistics agreement (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, LEMOA).
America has invested heavily in multilateral institutions in the Indo-Pacific with an eye on countering China. Washington’s ties with ASEAN have grown, although some strains remain particularly with the situation in Myanmar. America has also reassured traditional allies through the Pivot to Asia policy and by strengthening existing treaty alliances such as the South-East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Australia, New Zealand, United States Treaty (ANZUS). More recently, America has been a vocal supporter of the Quadrilateral (QUAD) arrangement, an alliance of four liberal democratic states (US, India, Japan, and Australia). The annual ‘Malabar’ bilateral naval exercises between the US and India have now been expanded to include Japan and Australia.
Still, this may not be enough for Washington, particularly with the growing axis between Moscow and Beijing. Already, China and Russia seem to be pushing the US out from West Asia. China has played the lead role in brokering a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran, and Russia is now attempting to broker a similar peace deal between Riyadh and Damascus. Economic and commercial ties, particularly in the oil and gas sector, between Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia is on the upswing.9 In a recent interview, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was reported to have voiced his desire to distance the Kingdom from the United States and the Saudis have now agreed to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner. Most observers also believe that it is now a matter of time before Saudi Arabia, Iran, and a few other states join an expanded BRICS+.10 America therefore must strengthen its strategic position in the Indo-Pacific through the deployment of NATO. But given the serious strains within NATO particularly with France and Germany, an effective NATO strategic deployment in the Indo-Pacific (naval and air power mainly) will be mostly through the US and British military assets working in tandem with the militaries of NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners - Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. In this context, one may view the AUKUS, which is a military arrangement between the United States, Britain, and Australia, as the entry of NATO into the Indo-Pacific through the proverbial “back door”. NATO’s quest for more Indo-Pacific partners may not stop with the four current ones. In a recent visit to India, Julianne Smith, the United States’ Permanent Representative to NATO, remarked that the “door is open” for India to develop closer ties with NATO and that NATO would be “more than happy to engage with India” when New Delhi feels ready to do so.11
Tectonic shifts are taking place in global politics and the world is rapidly becoming multipolar whether we like it or not. This trend will continue to get consolidated in the future. In this multipolar environment, the old and facile binary of ‘friend vs enemy’ may not work very well. Instead, it might be more to Australia’s interests to view states like China and Russia as both a friend (in some areas) and an enemy or threat (in some other areas). In other words, bilateral relations such as Australia-China or Australia-Russia are far more complex, which a facile binary view may not be able to fully capture. Moreover, by uncritically accepting the US/UK/NATO views of China and Russia and securitizing these states as ‘enemies’, Australia may be harming its national interests in the medium- to long-run. The US/UK/NATO, however, require all the Indo-Pacific partners it can get, particularly at a time when it is losing influence in the Indo-Pacific, and a powerful China-Russia axis is growing and rapidly strengthening. But this risks involving regional states such as Australia, India, and Japan into a US/UK/NATO versus China/Russia fight for influence and hegemony that they ought to be wise to stay out of.
1 Richard Wood, “Building AUKUS Nuclear Submarines to Create 20,000 Jobs.” 9 News, 13 March 2023. Available at: https://www.9news.com.au/national/aukus-update-twenty-thousands-jobs-needed-to-build-nuclear-powered-submarines-fleet/9f3fc66d-22c8-4d69-9279-c1a961a38f44.
2 “Australia to Buy up to 220 Tomahawk Missiles from the US.” The Times of India, 17 March 2023. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/rest-of-world/australia-to-buy-up-to-220-tomahawk-missiles-from-the-us/articleshow/98723268.cms.
3 Sarah Ferguson and Patrick Begley, “Nuclear Submarines Needed due to China's Military Expansion, AUKUS Task Force Head Says.” ABC News, 14 March 2023. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-03-14/nuclear-subs-chinas-military-expansion-aukus-jonathan-mead/102094202.
4 Richard Wood, “Foreign Minister Penny Wong Warns about Risk of 'Catastrophic' Indo-Pacific War.” 9 News, 1 February 2023. Available at: https://www.9news.com.au/national/penny-wong-urges-nations-to-avoid-catastrophic-indo-pacific-war/13f5d272-a79c-49ba-bda5-889c6126010b.
5 “NATO Foreign Ministers Wrap up Meetings with Focus on China and Support to Ukraine.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 5 April 2023. Available at: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_213454.htm.
6 Seymour Hersh, “How America Took Out the Nord Stream Pipeline.” Substack.com, 8 February 2023. Available at: https://seymourhersh.substack.com/p/how-america-took-out-the-nord-stream.
7 Latika Bourke, “Macron Sparks Outrage, Infuriates China Hawks over Taiwan Comments.” WAToday, 10 April 2023. Available at: https://www.watoday.com.au/world/europe/after-visit-with-xi-macron-warns-europe-on-support-for-taiwan-infuriating-china-hawks-20230410-p5cz6t.html.
8 Jim Gomez, “Philippines Names 4 New Camps for US Forces Amid China Fury.” Associated Press, 3 April 2023. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/philippines-united-states-military-china-4db2a71161398e2769cceb2838fa2750?s=09.
9 Rajat Ganguly, “China's Saudi-Iran Diplomacy: A Stunning Surprise.” Polaris Live, 15 March 2023. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9S9QFuthd4o&list=PL4yyTisSNeBUnk7ntj2ewvD8Vi7ofp5Ni&index=2&t=364s.
10 “Saudi Arabia Enters China-Led SCO: US' Hegemony in West Asia Over?” Vantage with Palki Sharma, 30 March 2023. Available at: https://www.firstpost.com/vantage/saudi-arabia-enters-chinaled-sco-us-hegemony-in-west-asia-over-vantage-with-palki-sharma-5552.
11 Srinjoy Chowdhury, “As Ukraine War Rages, NATO Seeks Closer Ties with India.” Times Now, 1 April 2023. Available at: https://www.timesnownews.com/world/amid-ukraine-war-us-signalling-india-to-join-nato-us-nato-ambassador-says-door-is-open-article-99155329/amp.
About the Author:
Rajat Ganguly is the Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Asian Security & International Affairs
The article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the organisation.
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