A significant strategic re-equilibration is underway in the Indo-Pacific. It may eventuate into a geopolitical tectonic shift but at a minimum it entails a reordering of the regional military balance, which in turn has diplomatic implications much further afield.
Agreement between the US, UK and Australia to build nuclear powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), and the military alliance between those states that will have that submarine fleet as its cornerstone (called “AUKUS”), has generated a lot of debate about its implications across a number of issue areas. Much heat has been generated as well, particularly from France (which saw its 2016 contract to build diesel-powered boats cancelled), China (clearly the reason why the Anglophone military partnership was formed and which is unhappy about it), non-proliferation and pacifist communities (who see the danger of nuclear arms proliferation amid a regional arms race as a result of the move) and NZ security conservatives who feel that Aotearoa was ignored and left out of the alliance because of its non-nuclear status. Now that much of the initial furore has died down, it is worth pausing to disaggregate what the creation of AUKUS entails.
First, a bit about the boats. The RAN boats will likely be based on the US Los Angeles (older) or Virginia (newer) class or UK Astute class fast attack submarines (SSNs). Most of their infrastructure, including their nuclear propulsion systems, will likely be built by General Dynamic Electric Boat Division and/or BAE, which have built these types of submarine for the US and UK. The keels and hulls will be laid by shipbuilders in Adelaide. The submarines will be around 370 feet in length and displace 6900-7700 tons. Armed with Mark 48 torpedoes, assorted mines and Tomahawk cruise missiles, they have a top speed of +25 knots (the exact speed is classified) and a diving depth of +800 feet (again, the exact depth is classified). With a crew of approximately 145-150, their primary mission is Surface and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), although they can attack land targets and engage in mining and intelligence gathering operations.
The nuclear propulsion systems can be likened to a miniaturized version of commercial nuclear power plants with the the exception that the submarine reactors are fueled by highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium. That allows them to use much less fuel than less enriched uranium power plants and helps reduce the size of the entire propulsion system. They are much quieter than diesel engines, which along with other acoustic suppression technologies known only to the US and UK navies gives them greater stealth capability and allows them to deploy and stay on station longer than conventionally powered boats (up to 12 + months depending on the mission). In practical terms that means that the Australian subs will be able to patrol across the Indian and Southern Oceans and far into the Pacific east of New Zealand and north of Indonesia and Hawaii.
SSNs are not equipped with nuclear weapons. Those type of submarines, known as SSBMs, are almost twice the length and weight of SSNs and carry Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) that have ranges of 10,000 kilometers or more. This is important to note because the missile tubes required to launch SLBMS are larger than those required to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles, which means that SSNs cannot fire SLBMS. Although theoretically SSN cruise missiles, mines and torpedoes could be armed with with nuclear warheads, the availability of other weapons options and practicalities of ASW and naval surface warfare make that option highly unlikely. Moreover, the nature of the reactor casing and absence of anything remotely resembling a detonator trigger make the possibility of an accidental nuclear explosion aboard an SSN extremely remote.
From a performance point of view, the switch to US/UK designed submarines is a great improvement over the French diesel-powered option even if the total number of boats delivered will be less (6-8 rather than 10-12). The issue that remains regarding the 2016 contract between the French and Australians is how much the latter will pay for canceling it (the contract was worth 34 billion Euros). There had already been time delays and cost overruns in the 5 years since the contract was let and not a single keel had been laid, so the cancellation and switch makes sense if the break price for doing so can be agreed upon (say, for example, ten percent of the original contract and expenses incurred through the cancellation date). That is not an insurmountable obstacle and the French are well aware of the advantages the AUKUS deal has over the initial contract. To that can be added the strategic benefit France accrues with the presence of the upgraded RAN submarine fleet, which at no cost to France improves defense of sea lanes of communication between Europe and East Asia without requiring an increased French naval presence in the Indo-Pacific (the French Pacific fleet, headquartered in Papeete, is the smallest of the French fleets).
The arrival of the nuclear-powered Australian sub fleet alters the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific and, along with ongoing upgrades to Australian Defense Forces (ADF) land and air components, will make Australia the first military Great Power in the Southern Hemisphere.
When added to the military pivot by the US and UK towards naval operations in that theatre, it means that the regional balance of power will undergo a major shift that greatly complicates the Chinese quest for maritime dominance in that potential conflict domain. The US Pacific fleet already has more than 30 submarines in theatre, the majority of them LA and Virginia-class SSNs, to which are added a few Seawolf-class guided missile multipurpose subs and Ohio-class SLBMs. The UK is re-positioning significant parts of its fleet, including Astute-class SSNs and Typhoon-class SLBMs, to the Indo-Pacific as part of the naval ring-fencing of the PLAN. That means that PLAN submarines, both SLBMs and attack submarines, will be more effectively shadowed and attacked by Western boats in the event of conflict. That in turn provides another layer of security to US carrier fleets and allied surface vessels (including Australian and New Zealand navy vessels), whose numbers help make up the difference between regional smaller fleets and the PLAN (which is the largest naval fleet in the world). It also puts the small PLAN aircraft carrier force at considerable more risk.
The strategy behind AUKUS is simple: make it much harder and far more costly for the PLAN to push its reach beyond the mythical â€œfirst island chainâ€ that extends out beyond Japan to the Aleutians in the North and the Philippines and Borneo to the Southeast, encompassing all of the East China and South China Seas and the straits connecting them and the Pacific. The second island chain, which extends from Japan through Guam to Papua New Guinea, has already been mapped by PLAN strategic planners, who have been considering forward basing rights in places like the Solomons, Fiji and, much further to the West, ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, extending to the current PLAN base in Djibouti. The Chinese concern with maintaining a permanent maritime presence in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean is justified: over 95 percent of its oil imports and 80 percent of its trade with Europe, the Middle East and Africa cross the Indian Ocean and pass through the Strait of Malacca. PLAN power projection to the outermost island chain, extending from the Aleutians through Hawai’i to New Zealand, is at this point an aspirational target superseded by the drive to develop a PLAN Indian Ocean fleet while consolidating dominance over the first two island chains.
The PRC’s ability to protect its interests in the Indo-Pacific is complicated not only by the AUKUS alliance, but also by the creation of the so-called â€œQuadâ€ security agreement involving Australia, India, Japan and the US and the reinvigoration of the 5 Powers defense arrangement involving Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand Singapore and the UK. This concentric and overlapping network of security partnerships constitute military-diplomatic tiers arrayed against PLAN power projection. That raises the material costs to the PRC when pursuing maritime expansion since it will need more platforms and weapons to overcome the assets arrayed against them, and it raises the risks to the PRC are starting a conflict or engaging in intimidating behavior towards its neighbors. In short, this collective deterrence strategy will make it much harder for the PRC to engage in coercive military and so-called â€œwolf warriorâ€ diplomacy with the security alliances now being built against it.
The reaction of SE Asian and Western Pacific countries to this re-equillibration effort has been for the most part muted. For them the issue is not so much about the presence of more nuclear powered platforms since they already exist in some numbers in and around the Indo-Pacific basin. It is more about the collective action required to achieve strategic balancing in pursuit of, if not regional hegemony by the US or PRC, then a mutually satisfactory status quo grounded in that strategic balance. For countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Viet Nam, the Philippines and Singapore, a stable maritime security balance based on common respect for universal norms and rules is the preferred option, but if not ,a regional status quo rooted in the military superiority of and collective deterrence provided by the Anglophone-led powers is seen to be preferable given the nature of Chinese behavior in recent years.
At this point we must pause for a parenthetical aside. There is a difference between regional dominance and regional hegemony. Domination is achieved by the unilateral imposition of an inter-state status quo by a militarily and economically superior actor. Hegemony is achieved via consent and consensus, where weaker states agree to the leadership of a stronger state (or coalition of states) within given geographic limits. The former is rooted in overwhelming coercive and dissuasive power that enforces acquiescence. The latter is grounded in agreement on principles and norms that promote willing acceptance.
That is what makes for the difference between the PRC and Anglophone approaches in the Indo-Pacific: the PRC seeks to secure its interests as it sees fit and uses coercive diplomacy (including military diplomacy) along with economic incentives (to include foreign aid in exchange for pro-PRC votes in international fora) in order to achieve its goals during peacetime. As seen by its island-building project in the South China Sea, aggressive use of maritime militias to assert territorial claims within the first island chain and â€œswarmâ€ fishing fleet tactics across the globe, the PRC will not hesitate to violate international law should it deem it necessary. For its part, the Anglophone alliance seeks to uphold a rules based international order that, if admittedly constructed in its preferred image and resting on imperialist foundations that are a legacy from the colonial era, attempts to balance coercive and dissuasive uses of â€œhardâ€ power with persuasive and inducement-focused uses of â€œsoftâ€ power as the preferred means of peaceful international exchange.
The difference between regional dominance and regional hegemony appears to be the reason why the announcement of the Quad and AUKUS pacts have met with little resistance outside of China and Russia. In fact, many States see the moves as a natural response (and counter) to Chinese belligerency when asserting its interests in the Indo-Pacific.
Further afield, the ring-fencing or containment project against China in the Indo-Pacific will have a significant impact on European strategic interests. The arrival of AUKUS and the Quad signal to NATO that the US and UK are turning their gaze to the strategic threat in the Far East and will prioritize redeployment of maritime assets in that region. This forces NATO to subordinate US and UK perspectives within it in favor of a more â€œcontinentalâ€ approach that focuses on the original and primary threat that it was created to counter: Russia (formerly the USSR). Even more so than the PRC in East and Southeast Asia, Russia has asserted its dominance by occupying territory in Georgia and the Ukraine, annexing Crimea, backing the Belorussian dictatorship and Serbian nationalists, conducting hybrid warfare in border states such as Latvia and Estonia, bolstering its Arctic military operations and establishing itself as a major extra-regional interlocutor in the Middle East after its successful military defense of the Assad regime in Syria, machinations in post-Gaddafi Libya and military partnership with Iran.
With Brexit a fact and Germany transiting away from 16 years of strong centrist rule under Angela Merkel, this allows for two things. First, a return, after years of unfocused attempts at extra-regional peace-keeping, nation-building, regime change and prosecuting the â€œwar on terrorism,â€ to the Cold War focus on land warfare across the continent should conflict with Russia eventuate; and secondly, the rise of France as a more integrated European military leader under the NATO banner (France is a NATO member but has not participated as an integrated command member since 1966). French protestations about the AUKUS deal notwithstanding, it appears that the US/UK shift in strategic perspective away from Europe may actually prove beneficial in that it will help revitalize NATO as a collective defense alliance in tandem with a more Euro-centric production and trade regime.
As for New Zealand, there is little downside to the AUKUS pact. Although it was not invited to join and will continue to officially prohibit the new Australian nuclear submarines from entering NZ waters (as far as it can), it will also continue to exercise and conduct joint operations regularly with the US, UK and Australia outside of NZ waters. Having committed to upgrading its ASW capabilities with the purchase of modern P-8 patrol and ASW aircraft to replace its small fleet of P-3s now in service, the HMNZN (RNZN for short) will be included in some of the technology transfers derived from AUKUS beyond the nuclear aspects of the deal (say, in computing and artificial intelligence sharing related to ASW). The RNZN has to replace its two ageing frigates in the near future anyway, so the cost to the NZ taxpayer for receiving an enhanced security umbrella as a collateral benefit of and complement to AUKUS will be minimal beyond what has already been envisioned under current systems upgrade plans. In terms of foreign relations, NZ’s non-involvement in AUKUS spares it the wrath of the PRC, something that for a country as trade dependent on China as NZ is, can only be a good thing (even if the Chinese well understand which side NZ is on when it comes to the regional military balance). As for domestic politics, non-involvement in AUKUS also is a positive given that the non-nuclear policy has broad cross-party and public support. Thus, politically, diplomatically and militarily, NZ’s stance vis a vis AUKUS is a net positive for the country.
Pacifists and non-proliferation activists have reason to be concerned that Australian acquisition of nuclear powered submarines could lead other States in the region to follow suit. India has nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines in its arsenal, so countries with similar levels of economic development and technological expertise like Indonesia, South Korea or Malaysia (or even Singapore!) might decide to join the nuclear powered club. However, this does not mean that nuclear weapons will follow from that, and in fact, the security alliances being used to contain the PRC’s ambitions are in part designed to mitigate against governmental insecurities and inter-regional rivalries that might prompt a move towards nuclear propulsion. Japan and Taiwan will not go that route due to the conflict-precipitating dangers that it would entail, and other countries in the Indo-Pacific simply do not have the resources to join such a â€œbig ticketâ€ arms race.
Hence, while understandable in principle, in practice the chances of nuclear proliferation increasing as a result of the AUKUS agreement are very low. What it simply means is that six more nuclear propelled platforms will be added to those already cruising the waters of the West and South Pacific, Indian Ocean and connecting seas and straits (to include more PLAN nuclear submarines).
A final point on strategic (re) balancing such as what is being seen in these recent developments. Moves of these sort are designed to influence behavior. On one hand, they are designed to reassure friends and allies of the coalition partner’s commitment to their common defense and in this case, collective deterrence of a common adversary. On the other hand, they are oriented towards changing an adversaries’ behavior in a contested space by raising the costs of it persisting with a belligerent course of action without the consent of the other countries in that geographic space. As such it is both persuasive and dissuasive in nature.
This does not occur in a vacuum. Along with the â€œstickâ€ of strengthened collective security alliances, economic and diplomatic â€œcarrotsâ€ can be tendered to the PRC for lowering the tone of its civilian and military diplomacy while re-emphasizing the cooperative rather than conflictual orientation of its international engagements. This may not be possible so long as President (and General Secretary of the CCP) Xi Jinping remains in power, but it certainly will be an option that his successors will have to consider. And since the Australian submarines will not become operational until late in this decade at best, that gives them time to evaluate the pros and cons of sticking with his hardline approach to foreign policy. Time will tell.
This week’s “A View from Afar” podcast addresses the topic of this post. You can find it here.