The U.S., UK, and Australia (AUKUS) recently announced a new security partnership in the Indo-Pacific region, intending to develop defense and high-tech cooperation to help Australia develop nuclear submarines.
Under the agreement, the U.S. and the UK will help Australia build at least eight nuclear submarines. The three countries’ leaders declared that these nuclear submarines would not be armed with nuclear weapons and thus fulfill their international obligations on nuclear non-proliferation.
It is not clear when these nuclear submarines may be deployed. However, U.S. officials said the trio would use the next 18 months to discuss further agreements.
The sudden announcement startled Beijing and caused discontent between France and the European Union; even France recalled its ambassador to the United States on Friday, Sept.17.
Beijing criticized the tripartite security cooperation established by the U.S., UK, and Australia for participating in so-called “small circles, sub-groups,” and “seriously undermining regional peace and stability,” in the region, intensifying an arms race, and undermining international non-proliferation efforts.
The cooperation mechanism called the “US-UK-Australia Tripartite Partnership” will allow the three countries to easily share information and technology in high-tech fields such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, underwater systems, and long-range attack capabilities.
The most notable of these is that the United States and the UK will provide Australia with nuclear submarine technology to help it build a nuclear submarine fleet. The United States has never exported this sensitive technology to any other ally except to sign an agreement with the United Kingdom in 1958 to share nuclear submarine technology.
Although officials from the three countries all say that the U.S., UK, and Australia alliance “is not aimed at any country.” However, analysts say this new tripartite cooperation will strengthen the United States’ ability to contain China and curb China’s technological ambitions.
Timothy Heath, senior fellow for international defense affairs at RAND Corporation, a U.S. think-tank, told VOA: “Australia will be able to conduct combat flights with the U.S. in the Seas. East and other parts of the Pacific, which will help deter China’s aggressive military actions in the South China Sea.”
He said that nuclear-powered submarines have high durability and can hide and travel long distances underwater without refueling.
As a result, they are not easily detected or attacked by ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles, are more survivable and lethal, and constitute an essential deterrent to the PLA Navy’s surface forces.
France expressed its strong dissatisfaction with the sudden announcement of a new security alliance between these three English-speaking countries of the same culture.
In particular, Australia’s cooperation with the United States and the UK to build nuclear submarines means that the submarine contract worth more than $40 billion between Australia and France has ended.
On Sept. 17, French officials announced that they would immediately recall their ambassadors to the United States and Australia to protest the U.S.-Australia nuclear submarine agreement. The U.S. news website Axios reported that recalling ambassadors from close allies is extremely rare, showing that France is very unhappy with the United States and Australia.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called it a “blow in the back” to allies and accused President Biden of suddenly announcing a new trilateral security cooperation agreement without consulting the consensus.
In an analysis, Benjamin Haddad, director of the European Center of the Atlantic Council, said that France plays a leading role among European countries in the Indo-Pacific region.” The actions of the U.S., Britain, and Australia “will deal a blow to the region’s transatlantic strategy and create lasting obstacles to U.S.–France relations.”
From Paris’ perspective, he believes that the submarine contract with Australia is part of France’s broader strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. The cancellation of the transaction will strengthen skeptics’ position about relations with the United States within France.
“There is no regional distinction between the interests of our Atlantic partners and our Pacific partners,” Secretary of State Blinken said on Thursday.
“We welcome European countries to play an important role in the Indo-Pacific region and look forward to exploring opportunities to deepen transatlantic cooperation,” he added.
John Schaus, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) International Security Program, believes that tensions with France will persist for a while but can be remedied.
He told VOA: “It will take some time and a lot of effort to resolve France’s frustrations and dissatisfaction, but I think the long-term interests will prevail in the end. Many countries worldwide, Not only the Pacific countries, but also France, the UK, Germany, and even the European Union have come up with the Indo-Pacific strategy because it is a key region for prosperity.”
America’s allies in Asia are generally happy to see the tripartite partnership between Australia, the UK, and the U.S. Since the Obama administration proposed a “return to Asia,” Asian countries expect the United States to direct its resources to the Asia-Pacific.
Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis of the Hudson Institute, said that this new trilateral cooperation mechanism shows that the Biden administration will prioritize Asia since the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
He said, “I think (Asian allies) will like that, even though they don’t say it because Australia can help them deal with China. Australia hasn’t been active militarily before, but it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen in the future. This could help relieve the pressure on them from (China’s) arms growth, or at least partially disperse it.”
When asked if the U.S., UK, and Australia’s tripartite security mechanism would accept other allies, Biden administration officials ruled out this possibility, arguing that sharing technologies as sensitive as nuclear submarine technology has opened up many policy exceptions.
Some analysts argue that the two members, New Zealand and Canada of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance, are not included in the new security cooperation mechanism, but does not mean that the two countries are excluded altogether.
Ha, Thien Muc said that not many U.S. allies could operate and maintain high-end equipment such as nuclear submarines. He said: “Australia has the potential to use nuclear technology, but also has common strategic interests and close partnerships. This will make nuclear technology transfers low risk. Especially regarding the possibility of nuclear proliferation and whether it benefits U.S. national strategy. Very few countries can meet this threshold.”
Regarding the discussion of whether tripartite cooperation between the U.S., UK, and Australia would replace the ‘Five Eyes Alliance,’ John Schaus suggested that the two sides’ goals are different and that there is no problem. One focuses on intelligence, the other on research, technology investment, and defense.
He believes that the new trilateral cooperation mechanism between the U.S., UK, and Australia can provide a potential model for future cooperation between the United States and its allies and partners in advancing their shared goals.