The unveiling of AUKUS, a new geopolitical configuration comprising Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, (the acronym comes by initial letters of the participating countries), has been one of the most remarkable events in global politics in recent weeks.
For now, it is difficult to assess the nature of such a move. Chances are that this is not a new military and political bloc since all the three nations are already bound by long-standing mutual defense commitments, a fact that the White House did not hesitate to mention in its statement on the matter. The last phrase of this document on these commitments said in particular: “We recommit ourselves to this vision.”
With the exception of the paragraph citing plans to supply Australia with eight submarines (apparently, some parts will be produced locally), the document is extremely lackluster and reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s speeches, always keen to “intensify and deepen” whatever he deemed necessary. According to the statement, AUKUS is created to “enhance trilateral security partnership.”
However, if the main purpose of this pact is to turn Australia into the leading regional power capable of containing China, this move only enhances the confusion around Australian government’s political stance towards China, which has almost always looked like a self-inflicted mess. If this assumption is true, this course starts to look outright suicidal. China has already warned that Australia’s acquisition of a nuclear submarine fleet will potentially make this country a target of a Chinese nuclear strike.
As a whole, though, the announced AUKUS project makes the impression of a poorly designed makeshift impromptu, mirroring its rushed development and, apparently, efforts to conceal it (from elite competitors?). Moreover, some feel that AUKUS may have a negative impact on QUAD initiative, another project that its participants have been desperately trying to rescue from 15-year oblivion. Japan, apparently, knew nothing about AUKUS development. Most importantly, neither did India, which means that the half of QUAD members were left in the dark. So what will happen at the second QUAD summit in Washington scheduled for September 24?
So far, it seems that the main rationale behind AUKUS was money: or, to be precise, an exorbitant lump sum of €56 billion, which Australia, an Anglo-Saxon country, “for some reason” decided to give to the long-time competitor of the Anglo-Saxon world, France in 2017. At that time, France won a tender (the main competitors were the Japanese) for the construction of 12 modern diesel-powered submarines. This sum covers not only construction costs of the submarines themselves, but also infrastructure development and crew training.
It seems as if Australia “had received an order from the folks up top” — a defense contractor from another (and leading) Anglo-Saxon country i.e. the United States. “You’ll get more bang for your buck. You’ll get our nuclear-powered submarines.” But what about the “rules-based” tender? The answer is very simple: “Rules” is a concept others should abide by, not us.
No wonder that French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was fuming after learning about formation of AUKUS and its purpose (It was kept secret from the key allies). There is a pretty natural (and not only a submarine-ish) explanation to all this. The first meeting of the French and Australian Foreign and Defense Ministers (the so-called “2+2 format”) has just taken place (on August 30 of this year). It was concluded with a statement of “enhanced strategic partnership”.
In other words, bilateral relations were developing smoothly along the lines that were charted during French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Australia in May 2018. Jean-Yves Le Drian himself was directly involved in ensuring the success of the above-mentioned tender. And here comes “the stab in the back”. It seems that Scott Morrison’s government was scheming behind his “strategic partners’” back right when they were negotiating.
Such treachery! Hell of a foreign policy!
The French response was harsh with Paris recalling its ambassadors to the United States (an unprecedented move in diplomatic relations between NATO allies) and Australia. The UK meanwhile escaped France’s anger since the latter thinks that London had only “blindly followed” other AUKUS participants (“what else can one expect from those simpletons, you know”).
Considering how the UK parliament debated the matter of Britain’s part in this project, London seems to have joined the pact pretty much along these line. Apparently, the decision-making process in the UK is just as chaotic as it is in Washington.
What does London’s Chinese policy look like? On the one hand, several Royal Navy ships led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth have just arrived in Japan to take part in multilateral exercises (with an obvious anti-Chinese agenda) in the Okinawa area. Meanwhile London is signaling Beijing: “No, no, that is not what you think”.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that Elizabeth “Liz” Truss, who previously oversaw international trade, was appointed as British Foreign Secretary. She, in particular, implemented trade and economic part of UK general policy of the “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific region. By the way, it is understood that on her previous post Elizabeth Truss advocated development of the relations with Moscow.
But again, in general it seems that AUKUS project was plagued by hasty development and pretty much ignored possible consequences of a such ill-conceived move. Did “the sackfuls of coin” really blindside the responsible authorities who failed to figure out the obvious ramifications the project would entail? For such projects tend to develop according to their inner logic, a fact that surprises its authors.
Meanwhile, defining AUKUS as a new “Triple Alliance” revives some nasty memories in terms of history. It was the secret signing of the 1882 “Triple Alliance” comprising Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy that turned out to be a historical milestone, a date that marked the beginning of sleepwalking towards the First World War, which entailed grave consequences for the humankind as a whole, both for the vanquishers and the vanquished.
As for Russia, while it should not exaggerate the significance of AUKUS, the project ought to be scrutinized, since written and oral statements alone do not give much clarity. We need at least some details that are nowhere to be seen.
From the most basic standpoint these events reflect the increasing urgency of enhancing de-facto Sino-Russian alliance which (this point should be emphasized) should not be aimed at anyone. In other words, it should be utterly defensive.
Meanwhile it is necessary to seek contacts with those US factions that favor solving domestic problems (the key issue here is, probably, reining in the situation at home), decreasing Washington’s engagement in foreign policy squabbles around the world and forging ties with Russia and China. Those countries are not interested in the collapse of this still predominant global power. The issue of the US nuclear arsenal and arms control alone is huge.
It is necessary to compete for influence on Germany (with France as a competitor), India and even Japan. Russia and China have their own stumbling stones in the relations with each of these powers. But there are some openings that do not look totally far fetched. That being said, Moscow and Beijing would have to show flexibility and patience while dealing with these states.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.