AUKUS. Can it bite?

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CPA – Nikolay N. Goryachev – 20 Septembe 2021

This article has not been published before and was written exclusively for Council on Pacific Affairs.

The latest news about the formation of the new defense partnership between the United States, Great Britain and Australia is certainly outstanding one. And this news is especially important, even critically important, for Oceania. Why? Because before, none of the states in that region had nuclear submarines in their fleets. And Oceania itself has been a nuclear-free zone for quite a long time – and this status seemed to suit all regional governments until the recent time, especially considering the recent events.

What does the formation of AUKUS mean? Is this an attempt to establish a new order and finally turn Australia into a regional hegemon (now by military means)? Or is it just a matter of business? Or are we dealing with an attempt taken by the United States and Great Britain to point out France’s place in the region? But most important question is – Is AUKUS able to bite?

On the one hand, the provision of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia seriously undermines the nuclear non-proliferation regime. At the same time, the Australian military in this case in the future can get submarines with an unlimited navigation area – which will be their huge strategic advantage. From this point of view, it is clear that, fearing the growth of China’s influence, Australia seeks to get all the possible advantages. Another question is that at present the PRC does not show military ambitions for the region, on the contrary, China’s interests are rather linked to business.

On the other hand, the development of nuclear technologies (even if they were created by experienced specialists in these matters) is a complex and very risky process, taking into account that it is regardless of the fact which state is developing these technologies. It is known that the development and further operation of nuclear reactors as propulsion systems for submarines at one time was accompanied by various kinds of accidents and catastrophes. Probably the most famous of them is the reactor accident on the Soviet submarine K-19. This disaster became widely known thanks to the Hollywood blockbuster, the main role in which was brilliantly performed by Harrison Ford. However, there were other accidents, the damage from which has yet to be estimated – the remains of the lost nuclear ships have not been raised from the bottom of the sea. And these incidents occurred both with submarines of the USSR (K-278 “Komsomolets”, K-219), and with US ships (USS Thresher, USS Scorpion). These tragedies happened regardless of the ideological affiliation of states and were associated with the complexity of new equipment and shortcomings in the training of crews.

Who and how will train Australian sailors is a matter of the future. However, one thing is clear – it will be a very big success if the development of a new technique takes place without incident.

Nevertheless, the introduction of a new component in the mechanism of military stability of the region may provoke other states to react. Moreover, that could be the kind of reaction that is primarily unprofitable for the United States. For example, it is very likely that the DPRK will pay attention to this and try to make its own nuclear submarine. Most likely, the question is not whether this will happen, but when it will happen. All the prerequisites for such development of events already exist, and it is only a matter of time.

From the point of view of the geopolitical component, everything seems somewhat more complicated. It seems that the United Kingdom, having freed itself from the embrace of the European Union, is striving to regain, if not its imperial status, then at least its position as a global player on the political scene. Another question is how justified this claim is. It is clear that in this case, the formation of AUKUS is mainly directed against the PRC. But there is another interesting point – it does not seem that there is a single position of approval among the Commonwealth realm about what is happening. The New Zealand authorities are clearly not happy with what is happening, and Canada was not invited to the new Alliance. In turn, this division makes us recall that in the last decade there was an opinion that the very concept of the Commonwealth will exist as long as Her Majesty Elizabeth II lives. And that her heir will not enjoy the same authority in the Commonwealth countries. Moreover, the commonwealth itself will simply cease to exist in this case.

So the clash of interests of Great Britain and France reminds us of the eternal historical confrontation between these two states in the past. A confrontation that has repeatedly led to wars. It is clear that in this case, business is business, and we are unlikely to see a new incarnation of the Battle of Agincourt. But there is no doubt that these events will hit the international authority of France. In fact, London and Washington have shown Paris that it is not welcomed here. Even despite the strong involvement of France in the affairs of Oceania.

In this situation, it is difficult to make long-term forecasts of how the situation in the region will develop. Nevertheless, in a certain sense, this is a kind of chance for the Pacific states to declare their aspirations in the international arena (for example, in the UN). So that their concerned voices can be heard.

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