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Australia 'crosses the Rubicon' with nuclear submarine accord

AUKUS deal reverberates among Asian nations coping with China-US row

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, met with U.S. President Joe Biden in New York on Sept. 21. The two countries have reinforced their strategic relationship with a nuclear submarine agreement.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Australia, the U.K. and U.S. have concluded a naval deal in a manner more secret than the interior of any nuclear submarine.

Through the AUKUS security pact, announced on Sept. 15, closely guarded nuclear submarine technology will be transferred to Australia, which will gird its defenses with at least eight of the vessels.

Left entirely in the dark, France was enraged because the deal involves the unilateral cancellation of a 2016 contract it concluded with Australia for diesel-powered submarines. As a result, Paris recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra.

Secret AUKUS negotiations began 18 months ago but really picked up steam in March and April, according to the Guardian Australia newspaper. The initial talks were between Australia and the U.K. The U.S. came aboard later. At the G-7 summit in the U.K. in June, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was attending as a guest, met U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The three men forged a new outline for a security cooperation agreement.

At the end of August -- before the AUKUS announcement -- Biden pulled all American troops out of Afghanistan, which is now back under Taliban rule after the U.S. military's 20-year failure to subdue and democratize the South Asian country.

The Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Waller (SSG 75), an old Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, in Sydney Harbour in 2016.    © AFP/Jiji

Biden said the U.S. would shift its security focus to the Indo-Pacific region to check China, but there was concern among some Asian nations that the U.S. might yet pull the rug out from under them in pursuing its own national interests.

France's outrage is not surprising, but why did Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. forge this alliance with so little obvious groundwork?

On Sept. 24, the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. staged their first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) meeting. Biden evidently wanted to give credence to the U.S.'s declared intention of remaining a force in Asia -- and even deepening its regional involvement -- ahead of the summit.

AUKUS reflects some major geopolitical policy shifts. The U.S. has shown clearly that it attaches greater importance to its ties with Australia than to France. Backing Australia against a possible China threat takes precedence, it seems, over backing Europe against less likely Russian contingencies.

Just as importantly, Australia has unequivocally thrown its lot in with the U.S. after the souring of its once warm relations with China.

The relationship between Washington and Canberra is based on the 1951 Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty. The ANZUS Treaty tied Australia and New Zealand and separately Australia and the U.S. on military matters in the Pacific. It is still in play between Australia and the U.S., but New Zealand fell away long ago. Having adopted a non-nuclear policy, Wellington in 1986 refused a port call by a U.S. nuclear submarine, and Washington said it was no longer obligated to protect New Zealand.

President Joe Biden confers virtually with Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson from the East Room of the White House on Sept. 15.    © Reuters

In 1999, when Australian troops deployed to East Timor, Prime Minister John Howard said his country would act as "deputy sheriff" to the U.S. in the region. Some dubbed his comments, which ruffled feathers in Asia, as "the Howard Doctrine," even though Australian troops fought in Korea and Vietnam, and subsequently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Relations with France, by comparison, were not helped by its refusal in 2003 to send troops to Iraq to join the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing."

Australia's location in the Southern Hemisphere gives it less immediacy than other U.S. allies in Asia -- Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand. Greater U.S. focus on these more northerly territories was to be expected.

China's "peaceful emergence" in the decades after Chairman Mao died in 1976 stimulated economic relations between Australia and China, particularly after Beijing's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001. In 2005, the value of Australia's trade with China surpassed that with the U.S. and had quadrupled at its relatively recent peak.

Australia in 2015 concluded a free trade agreement with China and invested in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

After the U.S. ceased to be Australia's biggest partner in terms of trade, China's ascent served as a wedge in that relationship. Australia in 2008 broke away from the QUAD predecessor and also withdrew from the annual Malabar joint naval exercises with India, Japan and the U.S.

Australia's relations with the U.S. were seriously tested in January 2017 when President Donald Trump fulfilled a campaign pledge upon entering office to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade pact. After Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull voiced expectations that China would fill the gap, a later telephone conversation about refugees turned very sour, and Trump hung up.

Australia's relationship with China would go south for other reasons. In November 2017, a prominent opposition politician was exposed for receiving huge political donations from a Chinese company to make pro-China remarks on the South China Sea issue. There was immense public resentment of China for flagrantly interfering in Australia's internal affairs, and the government barred Chinese technology companies like Huawei Technologies and ZTE from receiving contracts for 5G cellular infrastructure.

The final nail in the coffin came in April 2020 when Prime Minister Scott Morrison pressed for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. China fired back with import restrictions on Australian products. Undeterred, Australia called out Beijing for its abuses of human rights in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Happier days: Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with China's President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Hangzhou in September 2016.    © Reuters

Although Australia had always assumed itself to be beyond Chinese missile range, hardware developments and an increase in military infrastructure being deployed by China on artificial islets in the South China Sea have challenged this conceit.

Even without the risk of a direct attack, Australia's remoteness could make it vulnerable to expanded Chinese naval power. The Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote in a commentary that the "nuke sub deal could make Australia a 'potential nuclear war target'" -- regardless of what nuclear status Australia claims.

The U.S. has more than 30 allies. The list includes Japan, South Korea and the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Yet Australia will be only the second country after the U.K. to get access to U.S. nuclear submarine technology. It will also be the first non-nuclear country to have atomic submarines.

Australia may have decided to take this major step -- crossing the Rubicon, so to speak -- because it does not expect to reconcile with an increasingly belligerent China.

Others in Asia, including members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have looked to the U.S. for security and to China for economic development. A country like Singapore cannot choose either the U.S. or China, according to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Middle powers will need to find a neutral path between the dueling superpowers.

Some observers would have said the decline of the U.S. and rise of China are part of an unavoidable historical process, but Australia has thrown its lot back in with the U.S. That decision is a long-term bet that the alliance will endure, and on the likelihood that the U.S. has the resolve to stay in Asia, according to Sam Roggeveen, director of the International Security Program at Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Biden has described the China-U.S. standoff as democracy vs. autocracy. Australia's decision may be translated as betting on the sustainability of prosperity under the former.

Although Asian countries assume different postures toward undemocratic nations, the chances that they will be asked to choose between the U.S. and China appear likely to increase in light of China's supersensitive reactions to recent developments.

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