The Underwater Arms Race and Deepening Submarine Rivalry: Case of AUKUS

Abstract: This research article focuses on the new maritime defense three-way security alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and United States in the Indo-Pacific region. The pact is based on the idea of constructing nuclear impelled submarines class while collaborating in the Indo-pacific region. Australia, United Kingdom and United States seeks to enhance their ties with the new trilateral defense pact.  The article discusses how the trilateral defense pact is leading to a new nuclearized era which will impact at regional as well as global level. Likewise, how AUKUS highlights the importance of Indo-Pacific in the foreign policy of different states in the theatre of geopolitical affairs in the 21st century. The trilateral security agreement signed by US, Australia and UK has instantly become a matter of interest and controversy on the global arena, the breach of contract between Australia and France is amplifying the tensions. The article elaborates, how the three partners have amalgamated with an aim of introducing a new Australian submarine fleet which will assist collaborations in security. The research has been conducted under the theoretical framework of classical realism.


Indo-Pacific has gained currency in the recent times as a construct of political geography. Geographically, Indo-Pacific is the inter-connected space between Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. However, its expense is much debated and depends upon the definitions by different actors. Strategically, it is increasingly being reckoned as the flashpoint of the globe, both politically and economically. As the geo-politics and geo-economics has been shifted from Europe to Asia, Indo-pacific has become a new rallying point for the stakeholders including China, USA, Japan, India, ASEAN and Australia to define their strategic positions. The region is home to more than 60% of world population with rich natural resources. Ten largest world standing armies reside in Indo-Pacific. Strait of Malacca’s central position in the Indo-Pacific makes it economically very important. The three major rising economic powers: China, India and Japan also use this region for their trade and energy supply. So, to all intents and purposes this region is capable of either empowering or destroying the economy of the whole world.

Two broad reasons for the emerging importance of the Indo-Pacific region are: the growing foot prints of China in the region, and the relatively declining power and influence of the United States. As a consequence, it has become a center for the strategic and counter-strategic moves by the actors. It has now become the new focal point for the US-China rivalry. The seriousness of the fact can be deduced from the mid-2018 trade war between US and China which dragged the global economy during fiscal year 2019, to its slowest pace since the financial crises of 2008-2009. Moreover, this region is full of flashpoints that can serve as potential sources for conflict. However, it can also serve as a source of prosperity and peace for the whole world if China and the United States joins hand together.

Indo-Pacific construct has also emerged as an important foreign policy tool of choice by states competing for regional superiority. Resultantly, likeminded states are engaged in formulating alliances and partnerships in order to enhance their sphere of influence in the region. Recently, the Indo-Pacific region has seen a wide spectrum of alliances in which Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is the most significant one. Furthermore, a new security pact has been penned down called AUKUS, among Australia, USA and UK.

Under this pact, the United States and the United Kingdom will help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. On 15 September 2021, US President Joe Biden, speaking alongside Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced the creation of a new strategic alliance involving the three countries that was codenamed AUKUS. The announcement of this strategic pact has given a rise to many concerns on the implications of security engagement and strategic positioning in the region. Moreover, this pact has also challenged the legitimacy and the value of already existing alliances like Quad in the region.

AUKUS has generated fierce opposition. China has condemned this new agreement, calling this pact as an antagonist agreement that will create an imbalance in the region.  The Indian Ocean has already witnessed an upsurge of military modernization and the strategic balance has already been shaken. Regional states are trying to hold strong foots in the region whereas the littoral states are already fearing the effects of militarization in the region. Quad is one of those agreements that faced immense criticism from regional states like China and littoral states like Sri Lanka. Thus, the region is witnessing a great shift and that is evident from the fact that the Indian Ocean has now emerged as a major foreign policy tool of the great powers as well as the rising powers. This has compelled the like-minded states to form alliances and now wide array of pacts are signed that only caters this region.

AUKUS is one of those pacts that have clear military dimensions. The US and Britain plan to equip Australia with stealthy, long-range nuclear-powered attack submarines. It has clearly irritated its apparent target, Beijing, which will now try to accelerate its own rapid build-up of submarine fleets and anti-submarine forces to counter the new Anglo alliance. This will result in strategic competition of acquiring more and more advanced weapons that will undoubtedly lead the region to wide array of conflict. Thus, in the longer term the Indian Ocean will witness massive turmoil, naval competition and strategic rivalry hampering the peace and stability of the region.

AUKUS and the Future of Alliances in the Indo-Pacific

AUKUS is defined as “enhanced trilateral security partnership” that seeks to strengthen already established bilateral ties which the three states share. The partnership will also focus on deeper security integration, cooperation in the realms of defense, technology and industrial bases. The most important aspect of this agreement is the provision of nuclear-powered submarine fleet to Australia. The US and the UK plan to provide Australia with eight new nuclear powered submarines that would greatly extend the range, endurance and firepower of Australia’s submarine fleet. The agreement is already in the initial stage but as per the official it will take at least 18 months to devise “optimal pathway” and put the project on operation.

The strategic necessity of AUKUS is stemmed from the US, the UK and Australia. The US under Joe Biden aimed to strengthen its alliances and make America great again whereas for Britain it was important to rebuild its image in the Indo-Pacific and “Global Britain” was the major driving force. On the other hand, for Australia China’s rise in Indo-Pacific is the threat to its interests in the region and has compelled the nation join the nuclear-powered submarine club. These three outlooks ultimately resulted to culminate onto a single point that is to curb China’s assertiveness both economically and militarily. Yet this pact has raised many concerns in Malaysia, Indonesia, North Korea and China. China has fiercely criticized this historic pact, describing it as “extremely irresponsible” and “narrow-minded”. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said this pact would risk the stability of the Indo-Pacific “severely damaging regional peace… and intensifying the arms race”.

Furthermore, this pact has generated fears in South East Asia and Middle East. The deal that is the result of the emerging bipolar competition between US and China will see Iran capitalize on its own nuclear goals. This will undoubtedly result in the nuclear arms race in the region as Iran would argue that if Australia can acquire nuclear materials, so can Iran. Furthermore, in South Asia an AUKUS like agreement may come forward led by China with Pakistan. This could further pay-back to counter India, which Washington has tried assiduously to rope into an anti-China alliance. This could further impact that the conventional balance of power between India and Pakistan in the region forcing both the countries to adopt a more offensive nuclear doctrine.

Quad and the Formation of AUKUS

The announcement of AUKUS coincided with the first ever physical meeting of Quad member states. Before the announcement of AUKUS, Quad was seen as the major foreign policy tool of US in rebalancing of Asia. As soon as the announcement of AUKUS was made, the significance of Quad has been questioned. India then formally issued a response to the formation of AUKUS Foreign Secretary Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla stated that AUKUS “is neither relevant to the Quad, nor will it have any impact on its functioning.” But many of the analysts view that AUKUS would dilute the importance of Quad in the region and likely to impact the position of India.

Interestingly, the Indo-Pacific region has a witnessed a boom of mini-lateral institutions and more importantly they are directly or indirectly complimenting each other. These partnerships have involved one or two members of Quad and thus expanding the Indo-Pacific strategic matrix involving other members from the region. This is a smart play of bringing more countries closer with the aim to balance Chinese rise in the region.

The region has been a ground of many naval ventures, diplomatic and political partnerships. AUKUS is a stronger military alliance with the purpose of collective security. The Joint Leader Statement on AUKUS stated that the partnership will promote deeper cooperation on defense capabilities and information sharing. There will be a deeper integration in economic, strategic and political realm as it will pave a way to more industrial bases and supply chains. Thus, AUKUS has long term benefits for Australia that would instrumentalist its positioning in the global arena as well.

AUKUS and Biden’s Foreign Policy in the Indo-Pacific

The Biden administration has considerably focused on the Indo-Pacific declaring it central in advancing US political, economic and strategic interests. The US has been very robust in order to cater the Chinese influence in the region. Quad is the major diplomatic platform used by US to advance its interest in the region. It also held its first ever in person Leader’s Summit in September 2021. In the same month of September 2021, AUKUS opened up where the US and the UK decided to provide Australia with sensitive defense technologies. Together, these grouping demonstrate US role in defense, cooperation, health, education and hi-tech transfer.

US positioning in the Indo-Pacific shows their stance to compete to Chinese influence in peace times and at the same time deters military threats. In this regard, it is empowering its regional allies and thus ensuring a robust forward military presence. New Australia-US force posture initiatives will help US to expand its military air, land and sea access to bases. Australia’s strategic weigh will boost up because of these agreements enabling it to play a vital role in upholding a favorable regional balance of power.

Indeed, maintaining the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific is the utmost priority of the US, especially in times of China’s actions in the South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Therefore, US is willing to work with its allies to enhance the defense ties and sharing sensitive technology. For the first time in almost 50 years, US is sharing its nuclear submarine technology with other countries. Previously, US shared this technology with Britain in 1958. Over the decades, the agreement will broaden; collaborations in defense, technology, education, environment and health are expected. Furthermore, after the US withdrawal from Kabul and the fall of Kabul in August 2021, it was necessary for US to reaffirm itself in the region. Thus, AUKUS deal was a step to fill the strategic vacuum in the long sought ‘Pivot to Asia Strategy’. This deal highlights the reorganization of US interests in the Asia-Pacific. The AUKUS deal is the assurance of US’s security and presence to its allies in the region

The strategic trajectory of Australia

Australia has been very proactive in the Asia-Pacific in last few years. Moreover, the relations between China and Australia are also deteriorating that has resulted in Australia’s tilt towards US. AUKUS like security arrangement is also the result of China’s rise and its threat to the regional and global rule based system. AUKUS pact that is in core formed to confront China was hailed as “historic opportunity” by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison “to protect shared values and promote security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Announcement of AUKUS became costly decision for Australia for several reasons. Most importantly, it angered France and France felt that it was deceived and back stabbed. Furthermore, AUKUS is against nuclear non-proliferation regime. And most significantly Australia by signing AUKUS pact has officially entered into long commitments with US against China. This alliance will tie US and Australia together. Australia has entered into AUKUS pact for tackling Chinese economic coercion. But it is important to understand that militarism is not a response to economic coercion.

The China- Australia relationship began disrupting in second half of 2016. But for the most part Beijing limited its displeasure in the diplomatic realm only. The relationship worsened when Australia along-with the US started to attack on China over Covid-19. This resulted in Beijing wrath and it unleashed economic and trade disruption over many Australian products. Henceforth, Australia is experiencing continuous trade disruptions with China. After AUKUS, the China Australia relationship further witnessed a decline.

The AUKUS came as an important diplomatic move by Australia that aims to reaffirms its commitment to strengthening old ties to combat Chinese aggression rather than falling a prey to Chinese economic coercion. From Washington’s point of view, the deal will help and allow US to maintain its presence in the region. Biden again wants to establish the diplomatic ties through multilateral alliances that were previously hampered by Trump administration. Thus, it wants to re-exert its diplomatic and military in Asia-Pacific.

The submarine construction project that is the part of the AUKUS deal represents the urge of Australia to set up its own defence capabilities. As a result of this deal, Australia is under fire from both France and EU. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian referred to the AUKUS announcement as “brutal”, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen indicating that Australia’s actions were unacceptable.

Australia sees itself central in a new mesh of global alliances centered on the Asia-Pacific.  For Australia, AUKUS is an important pact that will uphold and strengthen its naval, military and strategic positioning in the region. Whereas on the other hand, completely entering into the US block may trigger Chinese anger and it would further lead to economic coercion by China on Australia. Furthermore, the legitimacy of this pact has been questioned in many aspects and the foremost is the nuclear non-proliferation and NPT. Moreover, many analysts are of the view that AUKUS will build up Australian impendent blue water capability. Furthermore, many critics raise the concern of uranium enrichment and its impact on nuclear non-proliferation. Some of the critics are of the view that nuclear submarine need national capacity and currently Australia lacks that national capacity. Furthermore, a nuclear powered submarines base at the coast of Australia will become potent to maintain and dock this nuclear powered submarine. Thus, no clear statement has been released by any official on this and no clear cut course of action has been announced.

AUKUS – Opportunity for a Global British Strategy

The UK has always taken a leading role in order to cater the global challenges. But in past few decades the global order has witnessed major tectonic shifts. This change has further more challenged the global environment. It has impacted various countries to change their policies and course of actions. For Britain it also became very important to influence and protect its national interests beyond its borders. For Britain, to engage with the shifting global context and to establish a new type of relationship with the European Union requires it to evolve and enhance its mechanisms to achieve its goals. Britain needs to use its national resources more cohesively and deliberately. ‘Global Britain’ is about reinvesting and re-establishing its relationships with other countries and championing the rule based order and put forward a Britain that is more confident, open and inclusive on the global arena. For Britain, AUKUS is such a platform where it would portray the Global Britain image.

There are lots of speculations of why UK decided to enter into an agreement with Australia and the US. The first important reason is undoubtedly making a reality of post-Brexit by engaging more and more in the Indo-Pacific. The UK’s integrated review, a blue print for Global Britain published in March, 2021, mentions Indo-Pacific about more than 30 times. This report makes it clear that Britain wants a ‘broadest and integrated presence’ in the Indo-Pacific region. Keeping in view Britain’s ambitions, its decision to enter into AUKUS and its decision to send its aircraft carrier to the South China Sea gives its ambition a more concrete shape. Secondly, it wants to work closely with its allies. The Integrated Review also talks about the close relationship of US and UK.  This reports also talks about UK enjoying cordial ties with Australia and now after this deal it would likely be responsible for training Australian military to use these new nuclear powered submarines. Moreover, this reports also talks about the close relationship of US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand also called the Five Eyes. Thirdly, it will be about developing joint technologies and protecting undersea cables by using AI and quantum communications. This domain is very important because China is now steadily rising as a high tech-giant and now Russia too has entered this race with its cyber technology.

It is important to understand that by joining AUKUS, Britain is sending a very powerful message to China. Previously, China and Britain enjoyed very strong economic ties. Britain was the second largest destination for Chinese investments after Germany. Thus, slowly the Chinese influence even grew in the sensitive sectors. For Example, Britain signed the project to build a local nuclear power plant with China. This changed in 2020 after Britain announced that it would review the program without the involvement of China. London’s concerns on Chinese 5G technology Huaweii also met the same concerns. At first, Britain dismissed the American demands to ban Chinese companies. But as soon as Boris came into power, he backtracked and called on to remove all the Huaweii technology by 2027.

Thus, AUKUS is the confirmation of Britain to enter into allegiance with Washington against China. Furthermore, it also highlights the importance of Indo-Pacific in Britain’s foreign policy. Britain is also very well aware of the fact that it is Britain itself, which has Europe’s geostrategic footprint blue print in the Indo-Pacific, a fact that is well understood by the NATO alliance. Also Britain is providing its allies with highly equipped technologies in order to uphold the free and open Indo-Pacific. So, AUKUS at the time might instill anger among Europeans and Britain but UK and US by empowering Australia in the Indo-Pacific will be able to uphold the security and the rule based order in the Euro-Atlantic region.

A Competitive Geo-Strategic Environment and Impacts On AUKUS

AUKUS as a deal has been condemned by many states primarily by China and South East Asian Nations. This military alliance will further trigger the resentment in the region. The deal will likely alter the political and security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. At the regional level, AUKUS confirms the underlying currents in the Indo-Pacific.

Japan has expressed its support for AUKUS. Former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has called to seek greater defence co-operation with Australia saying that Japan must work with the AUKUS partners in areas such as cyber-security, artificial intelligence and quantum technology. On the other side, India spoke less on this deal. Many critics were of the view that AUKUS may put Quad in danger to which Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla replied that the deal was “neither relevant to the Quad, nor will it have any impact on its functioning.” Moreover, India sees all efforts of AUKUS as China deterrent.

The US allies were not very vocal regarding this pact but for other Asian states this pact has put them on the horns of dilemma. This will be a very difficult situation for the regional states since they tried hard to avoid falling in any bloc. South East Asian states are trying to keep them aside in these developments. But Malaysia and Indonesia has raised stern voice over this pact stating that “this pact would escalate nuclear arms race in the region”.

China has sought to portray the AUKUS deal as an “Anglo-Saxon clique” and a threat to the nuclear non-proliferation system. China’s FM spokesperson Zhao Lijian dismissed the pact stating that an “outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception”. China’s Ambassador to Australia, Wang Xining has likened Australia to a “naughty guy” over the AUKUS pact stating that this deal jeopardizes the peace loving posture of Australia. Furthermore, he also branded Australia as “sabre weilder”. Furthermore, hours after the announcement of AUKUS, China gave an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). In striking contrast to its hard-liner approach, Beijing bid to join CPTPP demonstrating its efforts and commitment in upholding the rule based system in the Asia-Pacific. Thus, its espousal of multilateral security cooperation in the region has attracted many Asia-Pacific nations.

France’s reply to AUKUS was more strenuous than that of China. It was due to the surprise announcement of Canberra to abandon the deal to build the 12 conventionally powered submarines. The anger was legitimate as the consequences could be numerous. The collapse of this deal is a blow to French Naval Group. Reports in Australia describe the dispute between Canberra and Paris as a diplomatic disaster of Australia whose damage is uncontrollable. Furthermore, Paris felt humiliated by the secrecy of AUKUS. France recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US- an unprecedented course of action among these allied countries. Furthermore, the cancellation of this deal can severely impact Macron’s political standing at home. His foreign policy has been already in severe criticism and it could be a blow the re-elections taking place next year. France needs to bolster its ties with Asian states. It already has numerous partnerships with India and Japan. Furthermore, it is important to understand that France is not the spectator in the Indo-Pacific in fact it is a resident power.

The AUKUS deal in many ways resulted in a tedious path for European Union. As per the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the way the United States handled the AUKUS process should be seen as a warning against the EU’s excessive reliance on other countries, including its closest ally the United States. Furthermore, the tensions compounded when AUKUS surfaced on the same day when European Union released its own Indo-Pacific Strategy. This awkward timing resulted in concerns in Europe as they viewed that not only France but all Europeans were neglected and sidelined from the Indo-Pacific strategy. The trans-Atlantic dispute may not fade easily. It revives the old French sentiment of isolation that is already visible through the frameworks of AUKUS and “Five Eyes”. Furthermore, the European continent is witnessing the rise of populist parties that are against Europe and Trans-Atlantic relations.

Rising Tensions in the Indo-Pacific Region

Indo-Pacific has gained immense momentum in past few years. Regional as well as extra-regional forces are trying to exert increasing influence in the region. But with the rise of mini-lateralism, the apparent convergence has been fractured. By negotiating with Australia behind France’s back, the US itself has raised anti-American sentiments in France. Furthermore, the AUKUS was announced on the same day when EU announced its own Indo-Pacific strategy. The revelation of AUKUS and the SSN program further triggered the global outcry. The announcement of alliance and the SSN transfer has affected the strategic balance of the Indo-Pacific. This will exacerbate tensions in the region and will result in increased militarization. US has been striving hard to consolidate its rule based system in the region. Littoral states of Indian Ocean have already raised their concern over the rising militarization of the region.

At present, the US has some 66 submarines, including more than 50 nuclear-powered attack submarines and more than a dozen ballistic missile submarines, according to the non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative. Russia has 29 nuclear-powered submarines, of which 11 are capable of launching long-range ballistic missiles. China on the other hand, have 12 nuclear powered submarines, UK has 11, France’s 8 and 1 of India. After Australia acquires this technology, it will be the 7th country to possess it. Thus, if the US, UK and Australia deploy their submarines in the region, this will undoubtedly result in regional imbalance.

To balance China, US sees Australia as a potent contender. The agreement clearly stresses that it will seek external balancing in the Indo-Pacific region, outlining its specific aim of “working hand in glove to preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” External balancing will bolster US’s alliance in the region and could prove fruitful in mitigating Chinese influence in the region. And Australia is clearly the critical outpost of US in the Pacific. Furthermore, this deal will help America to revive its hub and spoke system of alliance in the region; a mechanism through which America assured its dominance and strong partnership in the region. In the longer run, US will depend on its allies to keep China into check and for this it needs strong and trustworthy allies in the region. Furthermore, the system of alliance and the growing militarization of US in Indo-Pacific may instill and arms and nuclear submarine race in the region.

Conclusively, the trilateral security agreement signed by US, Australia and UK has instantly become a matter of interest and controversy on the global arena. The agreement highlighted the importance of Indo-Pacific in the foreign policy of different states making it very clear that the region will be the theatre of geopolitical affairs in the 21st century. The agreement also aims to strengthen a security partnership in the region in order to uphold the peace and stability of the region. The US can totally outclass China in terms of military in the region, as it has number of allies. Yet, China’s economic muscles should never be neglected on which it can play at any time. The Indo-Pacific countries mainly pursue their trade with China and seek security from US resulting in a weak and fragmented regional structure. The US with Chinese economic interference will not be able to uphold its own rule-based system. Therefore, trade policy is a big hole in US’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, this security alliance has also deteriorated the relationship of France with US and Australia. Moreover, EU is also pessimist and reluctant to endorse this security pact since they feel cheated. Thus, AUKUS deal in this realm can be very costly as it lost the trust of some of its western allies. In addition, the acquisition of nuclear powered submarines by Australia is also put to question. This can undoubtedly trigger a nuclear arms race and will militarize the already militarize region. The littoral states of Indian Ocean want to ward off falling into one bloc while not being embroiled in the arms race between the two super powers. This agreement will have a drastic impact on the regional stability as it will result in the nuclearization of Indo-Pacific waters. More and more states will follow the suite and NPT will not be able to stop the countries of nuclear proliferation. Therefore, the security of Indo-Pacific is complex and dangerous.

Aqsa Ghauri
Aqsa Ghauri
The writer is a graduate Mphil Scholar in International Relations from Bahria University, Islamabad.