Will the New AUKUS Pact Transform Security in Asia?

September 16, 2021 Updated: September 16, 2021


Negotiated in secret and sprung on the world last week, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have created a new defense pact that is a direct if unspoken challenge to the growing Chinese military threat in Asia.

Dubbed AUKUS (or, more awkwardly sometimes, AUUKUS), its immediate goal is to create a framework for transferring technology to Australia so it can build and operate nuclear-powered attack submarines. Australia currently possesses six conventional—that is, diesel-electric—Collins-class submarines but wants to replace them with 12 new submarines, beginning in the 2030s.

Diesel-electric submarines are quiet and effective, but they are also limited in how long they can operate submerged. They must frequently surface and run noisy diesel engines in order to recharge their batteries.

Modern conventional submarines are being supplemented with various “air-independent propulsion” (AIP) systems such as fuel cells, but they are still inferior to nuclear-powered submarines.

Nuclear-powered submarines, in contrast, are able to operate underwater for months. They are also faster, have a longer range, and are much harder to detect. They are the ultimate stealth weapon.

Australia had planned on replacing its Collins-class submarines with new diesel-electric boats, and in 2016 France won a hard-fought contest to supply the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) with a conventionally powered version of its Barracuda-class nuclear-powered attack submarine.

Now, however, the RAN has scrapped this contract and will partner instead with the UK and the United States on a new nuclear-powered submarine, based on American and British technology. Over the next 18 months, the three countries, under the terms of the new AUKUS pact, will develop a new design and work out the necessary technologies.

The AUKUS alliance has many implications. In the short term, it is simply a tech-transfer agreement to supply the RAN with nuclear-powered submarines.

That in and of itself is a major development. In particular, it marks the first time that a non-nuclear weapons state will operate a nuclear-powered vessel, which is why the deal has also gotten considerable push-back from nonproliferation groups.

If Australia gets nuclear-powered submarines, that could pressure or entice other Asian-Pacific navies—particularly Japan and South Korea—to also get on board, so as not to be left behind in terms of technology. That, in turn, could open up the likelihood that other parts of Asia will also “go nuclear,” at least in terms of propulsion systems.

It is critical at this juncture to note that South Korea has recently deployed an indigenously designed submarine (the Dosan Ahn Changho-class) which is outfitted with a conventionally armed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). This missile, in fact, was test-fired earlier this month.

South Korea's first underwater-launched ballistic missile
In this screenshot, South Korea’s first underwater-launched ballistic missile is test-fired from a 3,000-ton-class submarine at an undisclosed location in the waters of South Korea, on Sept. 15, 2021. (South Korea Defense Ministry via AP)

It is not inconceivable that the South Koreans might want to pair its SLBM capability with a nuclear-powered boat. If so, could Japan be far behind?

Obviously, the nuclear dimension of the AUKUS pact crosses into new territory. More than that, however, the agreement is intended to spur innovation in a variety of new military technologies, particularly artificial intelligence, robotics, hypersonic weapons, cyber, and new undersea systems (such as autonomous long-endurance underwater drones).

In the longer run, the hope is that this new tripartite technology alliance will shake up the “insular and slow-moving U.S. defense sector.” In fact, AUKUS is seen by some as a necessary corrective to the Pentagon’s bureaucratic, risk-averse culture and its “addiction” to “legacy weapons” such as aircraft carriers and fighter jets when the military should be more focused on new transformative technologies.

Finally, the AUKUS agreement could become the kernel of a new regional alliance to coordinate Western security and collective defense in the Pacific. It goes a long way toward repairing Australian-U.S. ties that were fractured by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was poorly coordinated with Washington’s allies. In addition, AUKUS brings the United Kingdom more solidly back into Asia and aligns with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s vision of a more globally engaged Britain.

Finally, the AUKUS pact is also an elastic alliance that could easily be expanded to include other regional players, such as Japan and India (incidentally, other members of “the Quad”).

All these developments are bad news for China. Although the Biden administration insists that the AUKUS pact is “not aimed or about any one country,” the message is clearly about crafting a unified and coordinated response to an increasingly assertive and militarily capable China.

Not surprisingly, Beijing has responded in blunt fashion, accusing the United States of aggravating an arms race and perpetuating an “outdated Cold War mentality.” Moreover, the Chinese have accused Australia of being a “running dog” of the United States (yes, they still use such terms) and that it should “prepare for the worst.”

China hopes that it can kill this alliance in the cradle, but its ham-fisted “wolf warrior” actions will doubtlessly backfire on it. The AUKUS pact is a direct response to Chinese aggression, and Beijing has no one to blame but itself.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.