Explained: Australia's Pact With US-UK Against China, Its Nuclear-Powered Submarines Plan And What It Means For India And QUAD

by Swarajya Staff - Sep 17, 2021 08:42 AM
Explained: Australia's Pact With US-UK Against China, Its Nuclear-Powered Submarines Plan And What It Means For India And QUADUS President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Snapshot
  • The Australia-US-UK pact is a promising sign for the QUAD. It demonstrates the US's willingness to remain engaged in the region and confront China.

On Wednesday (15 September), Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom announced a new trilateral security partnership — known by the acronym AUKUS — to work together in the Indo-Pacific region.

The pact is aimed at the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific, which has grown dramatically in recent years, and involves cooperation on emerging technologies, including defence-related artificial intelligence.

Among other things, the US and the UK will help Australia build a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, for which the three countries will draw up a joint plan over the coming 18 months.

Why Australia wants nuclear-powered submarines?

The Australian Navy currently operates six Collins-class diesel-electric submarines, introduced in the 1990s and early 2000s. To replace the ageing boats, Australia had signed a deal with French defence contractor Naval Group in 2016. The plan was to build 12 French-designed diesel-powered subs in Australia at an estimated cost of US $40 billion.

The French offered the Shortfin Barracuda, christened the Attack-class. But the delay in the finalisation of the design for the project meant the new submarines were scheduled to enter service only in the mid-2030s, and the cost of the programme had ballooned to over $90 billion. Due to uncertainty over the induction timeline of the new submarines, the Royal Australian Navy would have had to spend approximately $6 billion in a life-of-type extension for the Collins-class boats to keep them in service.

The French submarines were arriving later than expected, costing $40 billion more than originally projected and required $145 billion for maintenance over their life cycle. And even at this price tag, Australia was getting only conventional diesel-electric submarines, which even though better than the Collins-class boats of the Royal Australian Navy were no match to modern nuclear-powered attack submarines, capable of remaining under water for much longer than diesel-electric submarines, which have to surface every few days at sea to recharge their batteries, becoming vulnerable to detection by enemy.

To put it simply, nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), armed with conventional weapons, are stealthier than diesel-electric submarines, which have to operate noisy generators to charge their batteries. Stealth was one of the reasons listed by the Australian Prime Minister and the leader of opposition as a reason for the pact with Washington and London.

No wonder Australia decided to exit the deal with France, at a significant cost, the moment it was presented with the option of a better capability in the form of nuclear-powered attack submarines.

The fact that China already operates a fairly capable fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and ballistic-missile boats (submarines armed with nuclear-tipped missiles) also played into the decision. SSNs based on technology from the US and the UK will be much more capable than what the Chinese Navy currently deploys and may field over the next few years.

How has China reacted?

China wasn't expected to welcome the move, and it didn't disappoint. After all, it will have to worry about eight more nuclear-powered submarines (say in the event of a military crisis in the Taiwan Strait), much more capable than what it can deploy, in the next few years.

Beijing has dubbed the new security pact as "outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception." At the daily press briefing of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 16 September, wolf warrior Zhao Lijian said the nuclear submarine cooperation between the US, the UK and Australia "seriously undermined peace and stability" and "undermined international non-proliferation efforts."

"...they will only end up shooting themselves in the foot," Zhao said.

While the immediate reaction from China has been on the expected lines, its response to this development remains unclear. As the largest trading partner of Australia, China may respond with economic coercion, a tool it has repeatedly used against Canberra in recent years. But such a move will only strengthen resolve in Australia to stand up to China's bullying tactics.

"They have already imposed sanctions on Australia and threatened it so much that their bullying tactics have proven to be counterproductive,” Christopher Hughes, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, has been quoted as saying.

Australia's cooperation with the US on nuclear-powered subs is only the latest in a series of decisions made by Canberra that Beijing lashed out against. Last year, China blocked imports of Australian wine, barley and beef in response to Australia's push for an international probe into the origins of coronavirus.

What does this pact mean for India and the QUAD?

The announcement of the Australia-US-UK pact has sparked concerns in some quarters in Delhi because India is not a member of the new group. But there is no good reason to believe that the pact, which is mostly aimed at arming Australia with SSNs, will replace the QUAD or reduce its utility in countering China's aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday (15 September), ahead of the formal announcement of the pact with the US and the UK. In all likelihood, India, like other allies and close partners of the US, Australia and the UK, was informed about the pact and the SSN component of it in advance. This is also reinforced by the fact that Australian foreign and defence ministers were in India late last week for the first 2+2 ministerial dialogue with their Indian counterparts.

The announcement of the pact has been made just days ahead of the first in-person summit of the leaders of the QUAD countries in Washington on 24 September, where it is likely to come up for discussion.

Moreover, India too has its own Indo-Pacific minilaterals which the US is not part of — for example, those with Australia-France and Australia-Japan. And these arrangements have not undermined the QUAD.

The new Australia-US-UK pact is in fact a promising sign for the QUAD. It demonstrates the US's willingness to remain engaged in the region and confront China at a time when the obituaries of the US as a great power are being written following its exit from Afghanistan.

The fact that this will be the first time that the US will share its closely guarded submarine propulsion technology with an ally apart from the UK (shared more than 60 years ago, in 1958), something it has been hesitant to do in the past, also underlines Washington's strong commitment to security in the Indo-Pacific.

On the other hand, Australia's willingness to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines suggests the country, which withdrew from QUAD1.0 in 2007, leading to its demise, is willing to share greater burden of countering China in the region, which is a positive for India.

Why is France upset?

France has reacted to the announcement with outrage, saying the move was a “stab in the back” from Australia and the US. “We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed," Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Foreign Affairs Minister, has said.

“This is not done between allies,” he added.

France is upset for two reasons. One, Australia's new pact with the US and the UK has nudged it to withdraw from the deal to buy French submarines, a loss of revenue for France’s military industry. Two, Paris is also unhappy because it was excluded from the three-country security pact despite the fact that it, like the UK, has interests in the Indo-Pacific.

“The American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France... at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region... shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret,” a joint statement by the French Foreign and Armed Forces ministers read. “The regrettable decision that has just been announced... only reinforces the need to make the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear," it added.

Experts said the language used in the French statement on the Australia-US-UK pact has not been heard since the acrimonious rift between the two countries in 2003 over the Iraq War. The decision to keep France out of the loop may fuel the desire of a European military capability independent of the US, a desire frequently expressed in France.

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