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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-11-26

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Defence Scepticism over Aukus takes hold

Spotlight Asia Pacific

By Patrick Wintour

It was initially seen as an audacious enlistment by Joe Biden of Australia into the 21st-century struggle against China, elevating the country to a regional military power and giving substance to Global Britain and its tilt to the Indo-Pacific. But since then the “ruckus” about Aukus, as Boris Johnson described it, has not stopped. If this was the start of a new “anti-hegemonic coalition” to balance China’s rise, it has not quite blown up on the launchpad, but nor has it taken off smoothly. At the heart of the matter is Australia’s announcement on 16 September that it was ditching its A$90bn ($65.3bn) “deal of the century” contract to buy 12 diesel-powered submarines from France, and was instead buying eight nuclear-propelled submarines from the US and the UK. This duplicity enraged France, once Australia’s trusted partner in the IndoPacific, and required an apology from Biden. Now, as each day passes since the contract was announced with such fanfare, questions mount about the Aukus alliance’s ultimate purpose, what it means for the nuclear arms race – and its implications for other countries in the south-east Asia-based Asean block. The risk is that Aukus, far from strengthening a regional alliance against China, leads to fracture. In Europe, Emmanuel Macron’s plan to use the French presidency of the EU next year to relaunch proposals for stronger European defence have been boosted. Embarrassed by his betrayal of France, Biden has given Macron’s plans his broad endorsement. Macron has been able to argue that Aukus was a signal that the US’s geostrategic centre of gravity is moving from Europe to the east to counter Chinese expansionism. That in turn underlined how the old Eurocentric western security architecture needed reform, giving Paris a chance to turn humiliation in the Indo-Pacific into a potential victory in Europe. Individual reputations may have also taken a hit. Why did French intelligence and diplomats not pick up Australia’s months’ long deceit? With inquiries under way in four national legislatures, the chances of Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, emerging with an enhanced reputation for plain dealing and diplomatic expertise seem unlikely. Questions remain at least in French minds about the precise role the UK officials played in agitating for this decision that has lost Australia A$2.4bn. Senior British figures were on Morrison’s advisory panel from February this year. One difficulty for Aukus is that it is largely a concept. A phalanx of recently hired former US naval advisers have been appointed to fill out the details over the next 18 months. Regardless, no Australian nuclear-powered sub will be operating in the South China Sea until 2040. In the meantime, JeanYves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, said: “The Australians place themselves entirely at the mercy of developments in American policy.” None of this means Aukus, however difficult the birth pangs, lacks military logic, or political support. It was legitimate for Australia to decide its strategic needs were changing, and that superior US technology meant it would not need a civil nuclear industry to maintain a French vessel. But it also means a big change in how Australia views its range of influence. “By acting together you can change the calculus of the countries in the region that may think once they become a great power they can throw their weight around, and not have to follow any rules.” said Arthur Sinodinos, the Australian ambassador to Washington. France does not altogether disagree about the growing nature of the Chinese naval threat. But not everyone in France is prepared to be so flexible and magnanimous as it reconsiders its role in the Indo-Pacific. It is tempting for France to present itself as the champion of a different, more supple relationship with China, contrasting itself with the bellicose “forever friends” rhetoric of Aukus. France has a ready audience with this approach. Many south-east Asian countries trade with both superpowers, and as much as they value freedom of navigation, they would prefer not to choose, but prefer instead to be somewhere in the middle on the question of US-China competition, valuing ties with both superpowers, and reluctant to be drawn into any arms race between the two sides. Thus in the words of Susannah Patton, a research fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, the Aukus announcement provided a temperature check of where countries stood on the US-China divide. The political elite in Singapore, Japan and the Philippines are largely supportive of Aukus, although Japan is not enthusiastic about nuclear-propelled submarines. Choi Jong-gun, the first secretary of the Korean ministry of foreign affairs, was circumspect during his visit to the US this week. “South Korea is a strategic partner of China and needs a partnership with Beijing in reality,” he said. Randall Schriver, a former assistant secretary of defence for the Asia-Pacific region, was not pleased, warning him that it was dangerous for South Korea to drift in this way, adding if it did not watch out it would end up in the same place as France. More obviously, the Malaysian foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, and his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, have both expressed their alarm. Retno said the situation would certainly not benefit anyone: “We both agreed that efforts to maintain a peaceful and stable region must continue and don’t want the current dynamics to cause tension in the arms race and also in power projection.” India is also watching anxiously. Gurjit Singh, the former Indian ambassador to Germany and Asean, said: “The rise of partnerships in the region such as the Aukus and the Quad, which are not Asean-centric, causes them concern. The Asean sees the enunciation of the Aukus pact as increasing the geopolitical risks in the region, as the Aukus is aimed at countering rising Chinese belligerence.” New Zealand too continues to preach the centrality of Asean and nuclear nonproliferation. China is playing on those fears. Its deputy chief of mission in New Zealand, Wang Genhua, recently told Australia’s Pacific neighbours to be careful, saying Aukus was out to supplant Asean. “Australia is going to own nuclear-powered submarines. It will be almost necessary for them to equip nuclear weapons as the next step. The step just couldn’t be prevented,” he told the Wellington thinktank Diplosphere. “There will be more of a nuclear arms race across the Pacific region, more nuclear tests, and nuclear pollution.” He said this would be the first time in history that a country without nuclear weapons would receive technology with the precise isotope used to enrich uranium, offering new access to the technology used in atomic weapon construction. The main players in Aukus appear to have recognised they have at minimum a comms problem on their hands, and not just in Paris and Brussels. Both the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, in recent days travelled to Malaysia and Indonesia offering reassurance that the Aukus alliance was neither bent on war with China, nor an exclusionary project. Tim Barrett, the former chief of the Australian navy, admitted the concept needed clarifying. John Richardson, former chief of US naval operations, tried to reassure allies saying Aukus would be more palatable if it was less exclusive. It would “have to have tentacles and intrusions to be successful,” he said. Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, also tried to woo doubters in the region, telling the Lowy Institute the US goal was to create “situations of strength”, and this required “building a latticework of alliances and partnerships globally that are fit for purpose for the 21st century”. He said: “All of this talk of the United States and China going into a new cold war, or that we’re on our way to conflict, or the Thucydides trap – we have the choice not to do that. We have the choice, instead, to move forward with what President Biden has called stiff competition. Where we are going to compete vigorously across multiple dimensions, including economics and technology. Where we’re going to stand up for our values.” Ultimately, according to Rory Medcalf, author of the definitive Indo-Pacific Empire, the health of any Chinese containment security pact may come down to the French reaction, since France is not going to leave the region. Medcalf told the British foreign affairs select committee: “In a strange way, the real test for France is now. France was serious about the IndoPacific well before the submarine contract that France secured from Australia in 2016. In 2015 France was a heavily committed Indo-Pacific partner for Australia, so it should be now. In time it will be again. “In the meantime, it is important for the three Aukus powers to work with Europe and work with France where we can, to help them to fulfil the commitments of their Indo-Pacific strategies, manage the damage and try to help France help itself.”

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