AUKUS: A Sequel to the Cold War or Just Another Flop?

Does this new military cooperation agreement signify a move towards a 21st Century remake of the Cold War or shall it be rendered the geopolitical equivalent of ‘Cats‘?

AUKUS. I doubt you need me to tell you this but it’s the newest thing from America. A brand new military alliance for the 21st Century; composed of the United States, United Kingdom & Australia. Unsurprisingly, this has also caused a bit of a stir in China due to how the agreement strengthens the ability of its members to share military capabilities and most notably in its plan to equip Australia with 8 nuclear-powered submarines.

The importance of the agreement is pretty difficult to argue against when scholar David Vine -author of United States of War- suggested in an interview how AUKUS offers “a near formal declaration of a new Cold War1. It seems that the whole-scale importance of the agreement can not be properly recognised as we are currently awaiting a response from China. This might not come for some time, but it will come.

In the light of AUKUS, there are clearly some questions that arise, but let’s first address some of the things which seem clear. Firstly, China will feel threatened; with its’ main rival sending military assistance to a country close to its sphere of influence. However, the response is one we have yet to predict. French responses to the agreement have been less ambiguous with Paris recalling its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington. This wasn’t just because Australia chose to sink its €56 billion deal with France for conventional submarines, in favour of American and British nuclear submarine tech, but because many in France view this as deeply disrespectful. The implications of this are amplified by the subversive effect on NATO, of which both the US and UK are leading members2.

As well as putting US-French relations in hot water, India appears disgruntled by the new agreement. This is linked to the fact that in spite of India’s position as an influential regional power & emerging great power (perhaps even superpower in the future) it was denied a place in a military alliance to curb a rival on its border. However, a larger reason for Indian discontent lies in the US and UK granting nuclear submarine technology to Australia, something India has unabashedly pursued for the last 15 years. Having Indian requests and influence ignored has not been easily swallowed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who attempted to acquire SSN technology from France in 2017. Less vocal than France in its resentment of AUKUS, at the Quad summit (an Indo-Pacific alliance of the US, Japan, India and Australia to contain China), Modi’s failure to address the elephant in the room was contrasted by Japanese PM Suga Yoshihide who praised the new alliance4. It may turn out that these international disagreements could be short-lived as, in reference to a recent phone call, PM Modi and President Macron said they aimed to work “jointly in an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific area” and so it’s not unlikely that France may have picked up a new customer.

But this only addresses what we can see; AUKUS raises just as many questions as it seeks to answer. For example, we must ask, why Britain? Surely, as the world’s only superpower and owner of over 70 of the most advanced SSNs ever, why would the US need to involve Britain in the agreement? Could it not handle it on its own? France didn’t recall its ambassador to London in the furore which succeeded the announcement of AUKUS; later when questioned about this, the French Foreign minister felt that Britain was merely “the fifth wheel on the wagon5. According to former Australian defence minister, Christopher Pyne, the UK was involved in order to formalise British interests in the Indo-pacific and to make it more than just rhetoric6. Under a more sceptical light, it may be suggested that British involvement was designed to increase the deal’s legitimacy by making it appear more multilateral while also forcing the UK to assist if conflict broke out in the region.

Summarily, how China responds is key: will it form its own military alliances, will it arm itself? Perhaps, the People’s Republic may attempt to test the mettle and commitment of the US -in light of its Afghan withdrawal and Biden’s opposition to “forever wars”- by pressing its claim on Taiwan with greater force.  Whatever occurs, AUKUS will help define the future global strategic environment7.