The United States (US) seems to have taken urgent measures to stem the narrative of decline that had been triggered by its shambolic departure from Afghanistan.
The announcement of a new security partnership—Australia-UK-US (AUKUS)—which will enable Australia to equip its navy with nuclear propelled attack submarines, is a clear signal to China as well as to the American allies in Asia that Washington is determined about stepping up to meet Beijing’s challenge in the Indo-Pacific region. Though allies in Europe, like France, have reacted bitterly to the news.
As part of the pact, Australia will abandon its US $43 billion plan to build French conventional submarines, and instead build vessels based on US-UK technology. The first vessel is to be built in the erstwhile facilities of the Australian Submarine Corporation near Adelaide by 2040. It is not clear as yet as to which vessel will be made. Given American reluctance to share its prized technology, the likely choice could be the UK’s Astute class.
China was not referred to directly in the remarks of the leaders announcing the AUKUS, but Beijing reacted angrily with its embassy in Washington DC saying that countries should “shake off their Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice”.
Broadly, the Biden administration appears to be working along the Indo-Pacific strategy which was formulated by the Trump administration and declassified earlier this year, weeks before Biden’s inauguration. The document posed three principal questions:
First, how to maintain US strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific and oppose China’s efforts “to establish new, illiberal spheres of influence.” Second, how to prevent North Korea from threatening the US and its allies; and third, how to advance US global economic leadership. The ambitious goal of “denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the first island chain in a conflict” is probably now becoming history.
The inexorable Chinese build up is posing a challenge to the Trump-era strategy of “dominating all domains outside the first island chain.” The document had focused on India’s role and Australia was only mentioned in passing. Clearly, the Biden assessment is that the situation is more alarming, something that has persuaded it to take what Australian scholar Sam Roggeveen terms an “extraordinary” and “truly historic announcement.”
For the present, while American pressure on China along its coast and in the South China Sea continues apace, the US is now planning on a timescale which could see PLA fleets roam in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Nuclear attack submarines would be an appropriate response, as, indeed, the Indian Navy has also realised.
Just how extraordinary the decision is comes from the fact that the US provided the reactor technology for the first British nuclear propelled submarine in 1958, only because of the shock of the Sputnik launch. The UK had been denied jointly developed nuclear weapons technology in the early 1950s and came up with their own to make an atomic and a thermonuclear bomb. Things changed in the 1960s and American missiles have been standard fitments in British submarines since.
Australia was always seen as a junior partner here, and though the British tested their nuclear weapons in the country, Canberra was kept away from anything to do with nuclear issues. But based on their joint role in World War I, II, and the Vietnam War, Australia, along with Canada, New Zealand, and the UK have worked a global intelligence network that originated in a top secret UK–USA Agreement dating to 1947, which has been modified and refined over time and which features an extremely close level of cooperation between them. AUKUS is being seen as an updating of that old agreement for the needs of the new era.
The strategic cooperation between the US, UK, and Australia runs deep. As part of this, the Australians are probably reconciled to taking a hit on their lucrative trade relationship with China. Since Australia is a Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) signatory, it is unlikely that the US will have to modify any laws to go through with the deal. But in recent decades, the Americans have been reticent in offering their nuclear power technology to anyone, let alone that of nuclear propelled submarines. No country till now has been privileged to receive an American submarine—they are all nuclear propelled—and it remains to be seen as to what will be on offer for Australia and what kind of restrictions the US will place on their operations, especially since US submarine reactors currently use nuclear-bomb grade uranium.
Just how does this fit in with Biden’s recent call to Xi Jinping is unclear. Chris Johnson, former CIA and now CSIS, told Axios, “If our President is telling President Xi we want guardrails and we want safety mechanisms around the military activities, but then we amp up the pressure on military, that’s probably going to put an end to any such discussions pretty quickly.”
The AUKUS announcement coincides with the rising temperatures in the Korean peninsula as well. On September 13, North Korea said it successfully tested strategic cruise missiles. Two days later they fired two ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast, according to South Korea. But there was a new development in that just before the North Korean ballistic missile event, South Korea tested its first submarine launched ballistic missile. There is a triangular situation here, with the North Koreans seeking to pressure the US with a view of getting relief on economic sanctions, and the South Koreans reaching a point where they are taking things into their own hands, rather than depending on the US.
Taking into account the tensions between China and Japan, we could soon have a situation where South Korea and Japan escalate the situation, with or without the help of the United States. Already, the South Koreans have developed an indigenous capability of making a nuclear-powered submarine.
In recent times, there has been a lot of talk about expanding the UKUSA or Five Eyes grouping to include South Korea. This could well be a prelude to a closer US-South Korea relationship, which has implications for both China and North Korea.
A major downside of the new AUKUS alliance has been the estrangement with another western Indo-Pacific power—France. The cancellation of the US $43 billion project has hit hard, with the French accusing the US and UK of “stabbing them in the back”. An official statement accused the US and UK policy of “an absence of coherence”. It noted that France was the only European nation in the Indo-Pacific with 2 million nationals. Unstated was the fact that it also possessed a an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of some 11 million square kilometres and had been a strong supporter of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
What Does This Mean for India?
All these developments have lessons for India, which has been moving in its own systematic manner to develop capabilities that can challenge any future Chinese aggression in the Indian Ocean Region. The Indian Navy has more or less set aside its second indigenous aircraft carrier project and has decided to go in for six nuclear powered attack submarines. Currently, India leases one such vessel from Russia.
India built the Arihant—both the vessel and the reactor which powers it—with Russian help. There is a school of thinking that suggests that India, which now has substantial experience in fabricating the Arihant type of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), could convert these into attack vessels (SSN) as well. But being a ballistic missile submarine, its top speed is just about 18-20 knots per hour submerged. An attack submarine should ideally have top speeds of 30-35 knots. A more powerful reactor would require design changes as well as higher stress tolerance for its hull and components.
Given that the quality of the US-UK-Australia relationship is very different from that with India, neither Washington nor London is likely to easily hand over any technology to us. Both have technology that is hugely superior, and the reactors of its latest submarines don’t need to be fueled for their lifetime, whereas the Arihant will have to be taken to a drydock, cut open, and refueled every six to seven years.
But if not the US or UK, perhaps the French could be an option, though they would be very expensive. But maybe France would like to get back on an Indo-Pacific project and this wouldn’t be the first time they would be helping India to get defence technology that the US has been reluctant to provide. In the last couple of years, Indian naval leaders have explored various options as well as the French offer for technology of their Barracuda class. France is already helping India make the Kalvari class conventional submarines. Then, of course, the Russians are always there.
And where does it leave the Quad? That’s a million-dollar question. If the March summit statement is anything to go by, the Quad has a distinct non-military role in American strategy. Washington seems to have decided, that the best military option right now is to rely on a Cold War-type alliance whose core will be its most trusted partners.
This article was first published on ORF.
The author is Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.