AUKUS: What will this new military pact mean for relations with China?

By James Moules

SPANNING three continents with just three countries, AUKUS is one of the most significant new global military alliances in years.

The pact between Australia, the UK and the United States – from which it gets its acronymous name – was announced by the nations’ three leaders in a streamed conference on September 15, 2021.

The partnership includes the provision of eight nuclear powered submarines for Australia – which would make it the seventh nation in the world to possess such vessels.

Speaking at the launch, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region, the Indo-Pacific. This affects us all. The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures.

“To meet these challenges, to help deliver the security and stability our region needs, we must now take our partnership to a new level — a partnership that seeks to engage, not to exclude; to contribute, not take; and to enable and empower, not to control or coerce.”

While it was not mentioned in the announcement conference, the pact was widely interpreted was a move to counter China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.

Chinese officials reacted negatively to the announcement – with Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC, accusing the Western powers of ‘Cold War mentality’.

Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, also took this line of critcism, saying: “The three countries should discard the Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow geopolitical perspective, follow the trend of the times for peace and development, and stop forming exclusive blocs or cliques.”

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, although relations between the two nations have soured in recent years.

All three nations of AUKUS have sent warships through the South China Sea over the past few years – which China claims is its maritime territory. However, international court rulings negate this claim.

The UK also sent the frigate HMS Richmond through the Taiwan strait on September 27, 2021, a body of water that separates the island of Taiwan from mainland China.

While Taiwan functions as a de facto independent nation – and has never been under jurisdiction of the Communist regime – China asserts that the island is one of its provinces and has refused to rule out the use of force to take it.

Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London, told Redaction Report: “If both sides continue in an escalatory spiral it would eventually end in a conflict probably over Taiwan, which should be avoided.

“China is the only power that threatens to use force over Taiwan. None of the other players – the USA, Australia, the UK, or Taiwan – does.  

“So, the key variable here is China’s policy and willingness to risk an unintended escalation into a military confrontation.”

Taiwan – which is controlled by the Republic of China – is not a UN member state and does not have official diplomatic relations with many nations.

Only 14 UN member states recognise the Republic of China, which controlled the mainland before the Chinese Civil War and Mao Zedong’s rise to power.

Professor Tsang added that China would likely seek to counter AUKUS if it finds the means.

“If Beijing can come up with something concrete to counter AUKUS it will,” he said.

“It may yet come. For Beijing to accuse AUKUS of a Cold War mentality is a bit rich, since its forthright, or – to Australians – aggressive stance against Australia in the last few years has got Australia to take a more robust response towards China.

“Australia has been working to replace its submarine feet for a very long time, and chose to replace it by new diesel electric ones, until it sees China’s new posture as threatening to Australia and thus decide to ‘go nuclear’ with the subs.

“Classic security dilemma responses on both sides apply. A does X in a ‘defensive way’ but B sees its as threatening and thus responds by doing Y, which A sees as threatening and thus both sides escalate.

“Time for both sides to deescalate.”

China was not the only country angered by the announcement of AUKUS.

Australia cancelled a deal with France to purchase submarines in favour of the pact with the US and UK, sparking a furious reaction from Paris. France withdrew its ambassadors from the US and Australia in protest.

But Professor Tsang said that AUKUS would be seen as an advantage to all three partners in the agreement.

He said: “AUKUS is meant to be the beginning of a new security partnership, and its first act is to upgrade substantially Australia’s long-range submarine capabilities, so they they would be compatible and complementary to that of the two other partners.

“All benefit from this, as the availability of Australian submarines of either Virginia or Astute class would be easier to coordinate in deployment against a peer competitor.”

Featured Image: Pixabay

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