In September 2021, the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States (AUKUS) deal brought nuclear technology for military use to the Indo-Pacific. The idea was to change the Indo-Pacific region in a way that would ultimately be ready to tackle – and scale back – China’s influence. The idea was to make Australia “sovereign ready”. Accordingly, the US and the UK are already in the middle of selling and building several nuclear submarines worth billions of dollars to Australia. While the US intends to sell at least 3 nuclear submarines by 2038, the UK and Australia are building a new SSN-AUKUS submarine that both fleets will operate. Australia is to receive Britain’s first SSN-AUKUS in the late 2030s and its first domestically built sub in the early 2040s. More than that, the US and UK officials have confirmed that the sales are not limited to these submarines. In fact, if need be, more submarines, i.e., more military power for Australia, can be added at any given point according to the “contingency plan” that has already been put in place.
While this contingency plan has been devised in an anticipation of the Chinese naval moves in the future, the UK and the US are already spearheading a plan to not only reinforce the existing pact but also to expand it geographically. We can term this plan the “AUKUS Plus” as it seeks to include new states. This plan was recently articulated in a report by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK’s House of Commons.
Called “Tilting Horizons”, the report specifically recommends that the UK “Government should propose to Australia and the United States that Japan and South Korea be invited to join an AUKUS technological defence cooperation agreement.” Doing this is necessary, as the report reminds the UK government, because “China’s leaders of all political persuasions have sought to re-establish their country’s wealth and power since the late nineteenth century.”
This quest has now taken a new form, as the Chinese leadership is increasingly seeking ways “to coerce Taiwan, or to take it by force, in defiance of the self-determination of the people of Taiwan, to create an additional province of the PRC. As part of its efforts to undermine the success of Taiwan, and its independent Government, the CCP mounts cyber-attacks against Taiwan daily, intending to weaken the resolve of its people and sow division between Taiwan and countries that support its democracy and right to self-determination.”
Because a Chinese ‘occupation’ of Taiwan will also automatically translate into a threat to China’s neighbours, i.e., South Korea and Japan, the UK policymakers want these neighbours to join the AUKUS.
A rationale for joining AUKUS, or creating the “AUKUS Plus” is that this pact is, according to the report, not just about nuclear submarines. The UK sees it as much more than that. The report tells us that,
“AUKUS is not purely about Australia acquiring a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. There is a cyber and advanced technology sharing and joint development component that could be equally, if not more, significant. There is an in-principal agreement amongst the three powers to work together as closely as possible across the full suite of advanced technologies, including cyber, AI, quantum and undersea technologies, including in submarine detection.”
The US, on the other hand, seems to agree with this position. Calling it the “second phase” of the AUKUS pact, the US officials confirmed in June they were in talks with a “variety” of other countries to expand the pact. This was reinforced by a June 2023 report of the Congressional Research Service, which recommended to the US Congress that the latter may consider expanding the AUKUS to include New Zealand and Canada.
When combined, the US and the UK reports collectively suggest expanding the AUKUS not only geographically by including at least four new countries but also see the pact as much more than cooperation entailing the transfer of nuclear technology for military use to Australia (and potentially other countries in the Pacific too).
This push, given the current state of international affairs marked by an extremely heightened sense of geopolitical competition, makes sense for the West. It projects China, rather China’s economic and military rise, as a threat. The West’s constant negative projection of China has also left a clear impact on the perceptions of other countries, such as Japan, that also see China only in adversarial terms. For instance, the 2022 National Security Strategy of Japan refers to China as
“an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan and the peace and stability of the international community, as well as in strengthening the international order based on the rule of law, to which Japan should respond with its comprehensive national power and in cooperation with its ally, like-minded countries and others.”
The growing acceptance of the Western projection of China as an adversary is bound to allow for an increasing militarization of the Indo-Pacific. The emphasis on militarization is logical because the Western camp, unlike China, continues to lack a plan for economic engagement with the region. Other than AUKUS, the US has the QUAD and a recently signed security pact with Japan and South Korea. Therefore, if Western engagement with the Indo-Pacific is changing the region in any way, it is making it a lot more vulnerable – and dangerous – than it was in the past or even is in the present context.
Instead of pushing for peace via complex interdependence via trade, the US wants to create a security dependency of the countries of this region on itself. This way, it can not only remain relevant in the region and ensure these countries’ security but also act as a bulwark against China.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.