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AUKUS - the beginning of geopolitical changes in the Indo-Pacific region

Amid the increasingly competitive race in the Indo-Pacific region, in September 2021, the US, the UK, and Australia suddenly made an official announcement about launching a trilateral security partnership, also known as AUKUS. This move is considered as the beginning of a strategic change of the US and signals upcoming geopolitical changes in this region.

Intentions of the three countries

The inception of AUKUS is viewed as a step in promoting strategic priorities of the US, the UK, and Australia in the Indo-Pacific region. It also reveals that this region will continue to be the focus of foreign policies of the three countries in the time to come. Under the AUKUS agreement, the US, the UK, and Australia consented to enhance the development of joint capabilities, technology sharing, and foster deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains. One of the AUKUS notable initiatives will be a collaboration on nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, leveraging expertise from the US and the UK.

The partnership announcement shortly after Washington completed the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan demonstrates the US long-term commitment to the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. This is seen as one of the main areas of strategic competition among major countries. Reaching a trilateral security agreement and building submarines for Australia is crucial to the U.S. influence in the region, analysts say. In other words, Washington is increasing trust for its allies and vice versa. At the same time, through AUKUS, the US also sends an important message that nothing can stop Washington from playing a dominant role in one of the most dynamic regions in the world.

For the UK, joining AUKUS shows its changing role in the world, in line with its efforts to promote a “Global Britain” after leaving the European Union. This has created the basis for the ambition to “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration laid out in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published in March, 2021, which assessed that the Indo-Pacific would be the centre of not only the global economy with the rise of many Southeast Asian countries and India but also a geopolitical competition. Brexit enables the UK to cooperate more closely with the US to realise its ambition in the Indo-Pacific. Through AUKUS, the UK hopes to participate more in the activities of the Quad (USA, Japan, India and Australia).

As a traditional and close ally of the US, by joining AUKUS, Australia will have security umbrella from the US. In particular, for the past two years, trade conflicts with China have completely pushed the “country of kangaroos” to “Uncle Sam” side. In fact, the help of the US and the UK will help Australia Navy increase the balance of power in its favour to deal with the rapid changes in regional security environment. Moreover, AUKUS will make Australia one of the few countries that own nuclear-powered submarines. It should be noted that this is an important and sensitive technology. Before Australia, the UK was the only country that the US shared this technology with in 1958. These submarines can operate underwater continuously for 5 months and they are more difficult to detect than conventional ones. This becomes even more important now that Australia’s submarine fleet consists of 6 old and degraded vessels. Nuclear powered submarines will enhance Australia’s mobility and range in the Indo-Pacific.

Variations of the “Hub and spokes” alliance model

After taking over the White House, President Joe Biden “revoked” a lot of the policies of his predecessor, but the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy has remained unchanged. This proves that this strategy has a critical significance in maintaining and consolidating the U.S. No.1 superpower. However, unlike former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden did not choose solitary and tough measures, but instead advocated building alliances and partnerships with the respect of an international law-based order. The importance of the Indo-Pacific region is demonstrated not only by documents, security and defence instructions or speeches of the White House leaders, but also by Biden’s administration high-ranking visits to countries and partners in the region. With what has been done, President Joe Biden shows that he values narrow and substantive cooperation mechanisms. To establish AUKUS, Washington chose two countries that share many similarities and mutual trust, considering them as the nuclei to develop a long-term alliance.

It can be affirmed that AUKUS is a step of the US on the path of institutionalising multilateral alliances in the region. Recently, following the model of “Hub and spokes”, the US has successfully built bilateral alliances with many countries, such as Japan, Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Thanks to this model, the allies guarantee the US military bases and ports as well as support Washington’s presence in the region. The key point in security treaties with the allies is that the US will protect them in the event of an attack. With increasing competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific, the “Hub and spokes” model needs to be adjusted, analysts say. Accordingly, the “spokes” must be connected into a collective network to act together quickly. Therefore, the US has turned from bilateral cooperation to multilateral one and gradually institutionalised multilateral alliances but under a narrow mechanism.

In the coming time, AUKUS and the Quad will create a “pincer” in the Pacific region. According to analysts, while the Quad are highly regarded for maritime security and non-traditional security challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change combat, AUKUS is considered as a “mini multilateral” mechanism with the ambition to realise defensive measures, provide infrastructure and training in order to strengthen the substantive capabilities of the region. This mechanism will be the mainstay of the power balance, especially with its far-reaching commitments to fill gaps in America’s security strategy in Asia. Furthermore, AUKUS operational regulations are also more flexible than previous cooperation mechanisms’, which can facilitate the strengthening of military deterrence in the region.

Possibility of an arms race and geopolitical transformation

Under the AUKUS agreement, by 2030, Australia can own eight more nuclear submarines based on the design of the U.S. Virginia-class or the UK’s Astute-class submarines and the combination of technology of some defence contractors of these two countries. If this is only considered as an arms procurement agreement, it is a contract worth tens of billions of dollars. However, if this is viewed as a strategic change, it is clearly a calculated move of the US in the Indo-Pacific and can change the balance of forces in the region. As a result, this will create a complicated competition on the chessboard of major countries.

Evidently, shortly after the US, the UK, and Australia announced the launch of AUKUS, Mr. Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, called the alliance “the prototype of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Asia”. Russia has traditionally considered any change to regional security (from the formation of alliances to the deployment of new weapon systems) as a military threat that must be responded to. The reason is future nuclear submarines can help the Australian Navy operate in the western and northwestern Pacific Ocean, where the Russian Navy conducts its operations regularly. If the attack system of Australia’s submarines is aimed at Russia’s Far East or Siberia, it will make a “game change” to Moscow.

In a recent report by the US Department of Defence, it is stated that the Chinese Navy is operating 4 nuclear-powered Type 094A   ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and 6 nuclear-powered Type 093 attack submarines (SSN) and 50 diesel-powered attack submarines (SSN). Type 095 SSN and Type 096 SSBN submarines are currently under construction. Many other countries in the region, such as Korea, Japan, and India, are also actively enhancing their maritime power. Along with reports of increasing defence budgets of many countries in the region, military analysts concern that the Indo-Pacific will fall into a spiral of geopolitical competition. Additionally, some commentators compare the arms race between countries in the Indo-Pacific region today with the situation in Europe in the 1930s, just before the 2nd World War.

For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the birth of AUKUS is considered as a “test” of solidarity within the bloc. In reality, member countries have mixed reactions to AUKUS. While Indonesia and Malaysia warned of the risk of an arms race, especially nuclear submarines in the region, the Philippines showed its support for the alliance. Differences in security strategies as well as different recognition of “security threats” have led to different reactions among members of the bloc. Besides, the establishment of AUKUS has also created much pressure to relation balance on the chessboard of major countries. As the centre of the Indo-Pacific strategy, in recent years, ASEAN has been constantly induced by various parties. This is said to easily cause rifts among ASEAN members due to disagreements regarding bilateral relations between each country and AUKUS. Even if the rifts do not occur, the strategic race among major countries towards the Indo-Pacific makes it difficult for this association to remain stable in the near future.

It can be said that the establishment of AUKUS is a turning-point movement and will mark a change in the balance of forces and impact on the geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific. However, it is hoped that the interdependence of economic and trade interests among major countries can help reduce the risk of violence and arms race in this region.

LAM PHUONG

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