A New Strategic Partnership In The Indo-Pacific

Last Thursday, September 16th, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison jointly announced the launch of the AUKUS trilateral security partnership with the U.S. and U.K. This agreement is a watershed moment for Australian defence strategies in the Indo-Pacific. It marks a dramatic shift from John Howard’s doctrine of “not having to choose” between the U.S. and China. Under this pact, Australia will build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines using U.S. and U.K. defence technologies. Notably, AUKUS signalled an end to the $90 billion Franco-Australian Submarine contract, placing a great strain on diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Following the announcement, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian furiously reacted, telling France Info radio that “it’s really a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed,” and that “this is not something allies do to each other.” Following the AUKUS announcement, France recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the U.S., in an unprecedented show of anger.

Australian Foreign Minister Peter Dutton has defended the decision, saying that Australia had “looked at what options were available to us. The French have a version which was not superior to that operated by the United States and the United Kingdom.” Meanwhile, Morrison told 3AW radio that France’s frustration was “entirely understandable and reasonable,” and “as Prime Minister I’ve got to make the calls that are in Australia’s national interests, and no one else.”

Though not explicitly stated in the announcement, AUKUS underscores a growing concern for Western policymakers over China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. For Australia, this pact signifies a strengthening of U.S.-Australia ties with opportunities for interoperability and privileged access to U.S. defence technologies. It also grants Australia membership into the select group of nations possessing nuclear-powered submarines while satisfying non-proliferation treaty requirements.

For the U.K., AUKUS represents a concrete pillar in advancing the post-Brexit vision of a ‘Global Britain’ that does not need the European Union. In leading the push to make this pact a reality, Britain demonstrates its aspiration to reassert itself as a global power and improve relations with the U.S. AUKUS also exemplifies a resurgent and more engaged U.S. foreign policy. With this pact, Biden demonstrates a renewed a commitment to the American-led international order and a renewed commitment to existing key alliances.

The core directive of the AUKUS security partnership is to bring stability to the Indo-Pacific. It emphasizes a view held by many policymakers that China is a revisionist power directly challenging U.S. hegemony and that this must be resisted. Though it is hardly a new idea, it is still dangerous as it encourages a form of brinksmanship between the two powers that may end in a deadly arms race.

The alliance is also noticeably exclusionary. With numerous overseas territories that are home to 1.6 million nationals, France is an important actor in the Indo-Pacific. As the leading military power of the EU, Paris has pushed for a more robust European defence strategy in the Indo-Pacific, and it is odd that such an influential actor is excluded from this partnership.

In the end, it is likely that the impact of this partnership will not be fully realized until the fleet of submarines hit the waters. Given the delays in the previous Franco-Australian submarine agreement, it is likely that this will not occur for another twenty years. In the meantime, Australian policymakers should focus on rebuilding diplomatic ties with France and pursuing peace-talks in the Indo-Pacific to avoid war-mongering connotations.