On Wednesday, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US formed a new alliance that is targeted towards countering China – although China was never mentioned in the press conference virtually held by the three leaders, Joe Biden of the US, Boris Johnson of the UK, and Scott Morrison of Australia.
“This partnership is not aimed or about any one nation,” one official said.
China reacted to the alliance. Chinese media accused Australia of “making big strides in the direction of being an enemy of China.”
The pact is considered “historic” although the three nations have always had close military relations and the three were the major military powers to defeat Japan in the Second World War. However, as Biden noted, “It’s about connecting America’s existing allies and partners in new ways and amplifying our ability to cooperate.”
The alliance called, AUUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States), builds on already strong ties in intelligence and military matters. It is designed to facilitate cooperation in cyberspace, artificial intelligence, long range strike capabilities, quantum technologies, underwater capabilities, and sharing nuclear submarine technology with the Australians.
This last issue, sharing nuclear submarine technology, is a dramatic move. The US has only shared nuclear submarine technology with the British. Australia isn’t a nuclear power but will be able to receive a nuclear reactor from either the British or Americans for a domestically produced submarine.
The Australian submarine will be nuclear powered but will not have any nuclear weapons. But the nuclear reactor will give the ship the long range and ability to stay on station that is necessary in the Pacific
The announcement that the US and Britain will help Australia build a nuclear-powered submarine created blowback from France, who had a $40 billion contract to build submarines for Australia. France accused Australia of “stabbing France in the back.”
However, the French submarine contract has been a contentious issue in Australia for years. The French contract was budgeted for $40 billion, but projections had seen the contract price go up to $80 billion. In addition, the first delivery had been pushed back from the mid-2020s to the mid-2030s.
Although some of the work was being done at the shipbuilding facilities in Adelaide, Australia, the Australians were growing skeptical of the project. The day before the announcement of the alliance, the Sydney Morning Herald attacked the program. They noted that the Australian government must announce by next week that it was continuing the program with the French shipbuilding firm by another two and a half years. The newspaper noted that after that announcement, it “almost certainly will be too late to pullout.”
It’s likely that the Australian government felt the same way and saw this AUUKUS alliance as a diplomatic way to get out of the submarine deal.
This policy will gain support from the Australian shipbuilding industry. The next generation of Australian submarines will now be built in Australia. Only the nuclear reactor will come from either the US or UK.
However, any Australian submarine will be years away. The current benefits of the alliance will be the sharing of computer technologies, long range strike capabilities, and the “underwater technologies.”
“Long Range Strike Capabilities” indicates that the US will provide some technology (or weapons) that will allow Australia to strike back at China, probably with missiles fired from aircraft or ships. This will be considered as a counter measure to China that has been accused of bullying Australia recently.
Given the geology of the area, it will be the underwater technologies, specifically acoustic technology, which will benefit the alliance more and provide a strong counter to the aggressive Chinese navy.
There are also some possible economic benefits for Australia. Australia is having problems selling its beef and wine to China and this agreement may encourage the US to buy more Australian goods.
Although China is a nuclear nation with nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, they are generally ground based. Ground based missiles are the fastest and easiest nuclear option to retaliate with and are more accurate than other options. The problem is that ground based missiles are easily targeted and their only defense is hardened silos and missile defense systems.
Ballistic missile submarines are an excellent option. Although they aren’t as accurate as ground based ballistic missiles, they are harder to find in the vast waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Polar regions.
This is where China’s geography causes problems and is one reason why China desires control of the South China Sea.
The Chinese Jin Class of ballistic missile submarines are currently patrolling the South China Sea. Although much of the sea is shallow (under 100 meters in many places), which make submarines vulnerable to detection, there are several parts of the sea that are deep like the South China Basin, which is over 4,000 meters deep. In addition, the Chinese air assets and island defenses discourage constant US anti-submarine operations there.
China is also actively discouraging US anti-submarine operations through harassment. In 2009, Chinese fishing vessels cut a towed sonar array of a US warship, while it was patrolling the South China Sea. Later that year, a Chinese submarine hit the sonar array of the USS John McCain off the Philippine coast.
The problem is that for the sub’s missiles to reach America, they have to break out into the Pacific Ocean, while remaining undetected.
Although China has a long coast, it is surrounded by shallow waters. To reach deep waters, it must go beyond the chain of islands (Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia) to reach large and deep portions of the Pacific. The major routes to the Pacific are the strait between Japan and Taiwan – which is well patrolled by the Japanese anti-submarine forces – the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines, and the Sulu Sea between the Philippines and Malaysia.
American naval strategy is to control the seas by controlling the chokepoints. Thus, this new alliance fits neatly into US naval strategy.
However, the US Navy, even with the British squadron now assigned to the Far East, can’t cover all the chokepoints in the region with its anti-submarine assets.
That’s where the Australians are important. For decades, Australia has been the regional power in the South Pacific Archipelago and has good relations with most of the nations. Several of the nations are also members of the British Commonwealth.
These good relations should allow the AUUKUS alliance to place acoustic devices in critical chokepoints leading to the open Pacific. These will probably be monitored by the Australians, who have a sizable navy, but lack the anti-submarine capabilities of the UK and US navies.
The Australians also offer other benefits. As the traditional peace keeping force in the South Pacific archipelago, they have considerable amphibious abilities for a navy their size. This would add to the threat that allied forces could capture some of the small islands that China uses to claim its rights over the South China Sea.
Australia has also purchased 72, F-35 fighters that could be launched from Australia’s Canberra Class helicopter carriers, although that would seriously degrade their amphibious capability. However, the two Canberra Class Australian carriers do have the ski jump ramp that the British use to launch their F-35s. That would give the allies one or two US super carriers (at any one time), one British carrier, one Japanese helicopter carrier that is F-35 capable, and the two Australian helicopter carriers – a sizable air combat capability, if necessary.
Of course, the question must be asked; can the AUUKUS alliance remain a serious threat to the Chinese? The answer is probably yes, despite American actions in Kabul.
One of the most powerful, but unsung alliances of the post war era is the alliance of the five English speaking nations, the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand – called the Five Eyes. They have cooperated with each other in intelligence and defense, although Canada and New Zealand don’t have the large military resources. In this case, New Zealand has already announced that the Australian nuclear submarine will not be allowed in New Zealand territorial waters due to the nation’s “Nuclear Free Zone Policy of 1984.”
Given this history, it seems reasonable to expect the AUUKUS alliance to hold together in the face of Chinese aggressiveness. It is to Australia’s interest to boost its military technology which has fallen behind Chinese military technology. America and Britain benefit because Australia’s military capabilities will better match theirs.
It’s easier for China to ignore other regional navies and only focus on the US. However, with a resurgent British Navy and an Australian Navy using American naval technology, that will help restrict the Chinese Navy operations The alliance, and its ability to check Chinese hegemony, will also encourage smaller nations in the region – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, etc. – to assist the alliance.
Although China has managed to gain some allies, they do not have the naval resources to control the oceans. In fact, many of them are landlocked.
Although the alliance hasn’t immediately changed the situation in the region, once US underwater technology starts to be used to control the chokepoints leading from the South China Sea, it will make a dramatic impact.