The United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia have come together to sign an agreement called AUKUS, which subtly builds a firewall against Chinese aggression by arming Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. In Foreign Policy, Stephen M. Walt discusses the pact, writing:
On Sept. 15, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia unveiled a new security partnership, with the less-than-euphonious acronym AUKUS. The three states are close allies of long standing, but the headline item in the new arrangement is a joint effort to equip Australia with a fleet of advanced nuclear-powered submarines. U.S. President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced plans for more extensive cooperation on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.
Those basic facts about AUKUS are pretty straightforward. But why it came together—and what it means—is more complicated and far more revealing about where the world is heading.
First and most obviously, this move is a classic illustration of balance-of-power/balance-of-threat politics at work. Although China was not mentioned anywhere in the announcement, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out this initiative was taken in response to growing perceptions of a rising Chinese threat. These perceptions are partly based on China’s increased capabilities—including its capacity to project naval power in the Asia-Pacific—but also on its openly revisionist aims in certain areas. Equipping Australia with long-range, extremely quiet nuclear-powered submarines will enable Canberra to play a more active role in the region, along with the other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the United States, India, and Japan).
Second, although what’s going on here is to some degree purely structural (that is, reflecting shifts in the balance of overall capabilities), in other respects, Beijing has no one to blame but itself. Until recently, Australian opinion was ambivalent about the implications of China’s rise: Business leaders hoped to preserve lucrative commercial ties, and prominent strategists warned that opposing the growth of Chinese power was not in Australia’s interest. But China’s increasingly belligerent conduct—especially its unwarranted decision to impose a punishing trade embargo in response to an Australian proposal for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus—has triggered a steady hardening of Australian attitudes. China’s counterproductive response is a reassuring reminder that the United States is not the only great power capable of diplomatic malpractice.
Third, the announcement is a carefully measured step that will take some years to come to fruition. The new arrangement doesn’t threaten Chinese Communist Party rule within China or aim to crater the Chinese economy, which would be self-defeating. But the actions announced on Sept. 15 will complicate Chinese efforts to project power at sea and control critical lines of communication. As such, they will impede future Chinese efforts to overawe nearby countries and gradually persuade them to adopt more compliant postures. In short, it is a move designed to discourage or thwart any future Chinese bid for regional hegemony.
As such, this move also suggests that one of my previous concerns about the prospects for an effective balancing coalition in Asia may not have been as serious as I thought. I had previously noted the collective action problems that afflict most alliances could be especially severe in Asia, in part because of the vast distances involved, which might tempt some countries to sit out disputes occurring far from their shores. In this case, however, we have three countries—only one of them located in the Asia-Pacific—taking steps that will facilitate action in key regional locations. Collective action dilemmas will no doubt still rise, but the broad outlines of an effective balancing coalition are increasingly evident.
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