AUKUS: Ramifications for Indo-Pacific Region

AUKUS, a trilateral strategic pact between Australia, United Kingdom, and United States, was announced on September 15, 2022. The pact represents a joint initiative to counter rapid naval expansion of China in Indo-Pacific Region. Recently, AUKUS has entered a new phase after announcement of $368 billion plan for provision of eight conventionally-armed nuclear-attack submarines (SSN) to Royal Australian Navy (RAN). These SSNs, called SSN-AUKUS will be based on Royal Navy’s next generation SSN-R project.

The pathway to equip RAN with SSNs has been split into four phases. First, RAN personnel will embed with those of United States and United Kingdom to ensure collective crew training and familiarization with new technologies. Second, SSNs from United States Navy (USN) and Royal Navy (RN) will visit Australia on rotational basis from 2027 onwards to support development of infrastructure and regulatory mechanism regarding SSNs operational usage. Third, United States will sell three Virginia class SSNs to RAN with option of additional two more as a stop-gap measure. These SSNs will replace current Collin class diesel electric submarines (SSKs) in RAN fleet slated to retire from 2030 onwards. And finally, in early 2040s, first SSN-AUKUS produced at Australian shipyard will be delivered to RAN for operational deployment.

It’s first ever occasion U.S. is sharing nuclear tech with an ally apart from UK. In the past U.S. has shared similar technology with UK to strengthen alliance capability against Soviet Union. The provision of such state of art tech to RAN suggests that U.S. is using Australia as frontline ally to confront China. Also, the involvement of UK in AUKUS affirms that Washington still view London as key military partner

The superior endurance and stealth characteristics of SSNs will significantly expand the outreach of Australian Navy’s underwater arm. From a predominately defensive force designed for sea-denial operations, RAN will be able to project sustained power projection in Western Pacific Ocean, particularly South China Sea. For U.S. and its allies forward sustained presence and extended outreach of naval forces in Indo-Pacific are crucial to counter Beijing’ growing naval footprint. Moreover, besides SSNs, Washington is also exploring cooperation with Canberra in the domain of artificial intelligence, cyber technology, quantum technology, hypersonic missile systems, and additional undersea capabilities. With these developments, U.S. is aiming to formulate synergy with Australian forces to strengthen its combat posture in the Indo-Pacific Theater.

Ever since its announcement, AUKUS has received criticism from various segments of international community. Before AUKUS, France was aiming to secure $60 billion worth contract with Canberra for construction of twelve short-fin Barracuda class SSKs for replacing Collin class SSKs of RAN. But inking of AUKUS failed this potential deal leading to diplomatic setback between Washington and Paris. Indonesia and Malaysia have also shown concerns regarding deployment and proliferation of nuclear submarines in the ASEAN region.

China has openly expressed discomfort by declaring AUKUS extremely irresponsible measure which will seriously undermine regional stability, aggravate the arms race, and hurt international non-proliferation efforts. According to China’s foreign ministry, “The latest joint statement from the U.S., UK and Australia demonstrates that the three countries, for the sake of their own geopolitical interests, completely disregard the concerns of the international communities and are walking further and further down the path of error and danger.” Beijing has specifically criticized U.S. and UK – the signatories of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – for arming a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) with nuclear technology with military application.

AUKUS has also alarmed watchdogs of nuclear disarmament regimes which have shown deep concerns regarding potential access of NNWS to high-end nuclear technologies including nuclear propulsion and Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel. On its part, Washington has ensured the mitigation of these concerns by denying Canberra’s physical access to nuclear reactors within SSNs. The nuclear reactors of SSN-AUKUS will not be built in Australia. Instead, these reactors will be exported either from U.S. or UK in a sealed compartment and will not need refueling during their operational life.

Besides risks of regional nuclear proliferation, the AUKUS can prompt other nations to acquire nuclear technologies by exploiting the vulnerabilities in nuclear proliferation control regimes. For example, being a member of Quad and signatory of numerous bilateral security agreements with the U.S., India always expects more profundity within Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategic framework. Although India has been sidelined from AUKUS, but still New Delhi has welcomed the AUKUS agreement as it synchronizes with its anti-China state policy. Using AUKUS as pretext, New Delhi may attempt to acquire similar nuclear propulsion technology from a foreign source, likely France. Using AUKUS as pretext, New Delhi may attempt to acquire similar nuclear propulsion technology from a foreign source, likely France, for its Project 75-A nuclear attack submarine project (SSN). France and India already have deep co-operation in submarine development. In this regard, the likelihood of Indo-French co-operation cannot be ruled out at all.

In sum, AUKUS and related developments will impact the Indian Ocean Region in four distinct ways. First, the intensifying strategic competition between Washington and Beijing will yield political complications for Indo-Pacific region. Second, the proliferation of nuclear submarines in IOR will disturb the regional balance of power. It will intensify the security dilemma which will eventually trigger naval arms race. Third, the increasing number of nuclear submarines will pose major challenges as far as command & control and safety of nuclear assets is concerned. And finally, AUKUS will undermine the non-proliferation regimes and will prompt other nations to procure similar capabilities.

AUKUS testifies that rising military might of China has compelled United States to undertake extra ordinary decisions for sustaining its dominance. Australia, a rather distant nation, has been dragged into Sino-U.S. competition. Standards set by AUKUS will tempt other nations to follow suite. Under current circumstances, the global powers with conflicting interests will continue to explore more assertive military options which will eventually turn Indo-Pacific Region as a competing ground of a new Cold War.

Ahmad Ibrahim
Ahmad Ibrahim
The author is an Independent Researcher and holds M.Phil Degree in Strategic Studies from National Defence University.