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What Drove the U.S. to Make a Nuclear Submarine Deal With Australia?

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U.S. Navy Virginia-class submarine (USN)

Published Nov 7, 2021 2:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

[By Charles Edel]

September was a dizzying month in Australian foreign policy, especially in the Australian–American relationship. In quick succession were the 70th anniversary of ANZUS, the announcement of the new AUKUS defence partnership, the annual AUSMIN consultations and the Quad’s first in-person leaders’ meeting. The pace was relentless and the consequences breathtaking, with AUKUS the most notable development.

Much Australian commentary has focused on what drove Canberra to join this partnership—the potential risks and benefits, the political dimensions and the challenges. Less discussed are the multiple factors that drove Washington to this decision. None relate to over-the-top claims that it was motivated by a desperate and provocative grasp at preserving its primacy. Understanding the multiple rationales at work is key to determining how important AUKUS is to America, the strength and durability of its commitment, and the likely evolution of this rapidly changing partnership.

AUKUS represents a sea change in US strategic thinking towards empowering its allies, redistributing its forces around the Indo-Pacific, and better integrating its allies into its supply chains and industrial planning to deal with an increasingly aggressive China. This requires sharing sensitive technologies, deepening intelligence cooperation, pooling resources and changing domestic legislation around export controls. It could fundamentally change America’s engagement with the region, its approach to technological acquisition, and its relationship with Australia and other allies.

Given the strategic, bureaucratic and legislative hurdles, this will be no mean feat. So, what explains this shift in Washington’s attitude? Several factors, as it turns out.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly asserted that alliances are America’s greatest asset and pledged that his administration will repair and reinvest in them. This isn’t simply a desire to apply rhetorical balm after four years of disruptions, although that’s undoubtedly at work too. For Biden, as with nearly all his predecessors, this is a matter of security.

‘When we strengthen our alliances,’ Biden told America’s diplomats shortly after becoming president, ‘we amplify our power as well as our ability to disrupt threats before they can reach our shores.’ This straightforward logic has guided American policymakers for decades: there’s safety, and power, in numbers and threats are best confronted as far from the American homeland as possible.

For Washington, AUKUS is a tangible demonstration of its commitment to allies under duress. More significantly, it is a recognition that in a deteriorating security environment with a shifting balance of power, America is prepared to significantly augment close allies’ capabilities and enable them to do more.

Similarly, America needs to address persistent questions about its commitment to, and staying power in, the Indo-Pacific. Foreign observers have obsessed over how inwardly focused America is, where its actual, as opposed to stated, priorities lie, and its ability to defend itself and others from emerging threats.

America’s allies and partners have asked these questions out of a sense of concern; its adversaries out of a sense of opportunity. In recent months, such concerns were heightened in the aftermath of America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and growing alarm over Taiwan’s vulnerability. AUKUS will not put an end to those debates, but willingly sharing the crown jewels of America’s technological and military prowess is a big step forward.

Just as significant, AUKUS will help shift America’s strategic focus and lay the foundation for a significantly expanded regional presence. Related to this is the message intended simultaneously for external audiences and domestic ones that the needs of the Indo-Pacific will take priority over other interests and drive bureaucratic choice and resource allocation.

The special regard that Australia is held in, by both American policymakers and the American public, combined with Washington’s desire to do more to help Australia respond to China’s bullying, also helps account for Washington’s willingness to pursue this deal. Australia and America have had a close relationship for decades but, over the past several years, a special interest in, and respect for, Australia’s own policies has grown in the US.

Australia is seen a canary in the coalmine, often the first to experience and be forced to respond to various forms of Chinese coercion and political interference. In Washington, politicians and policymakers now cite Australia as an example of both what Chinese coercion looks like and how to respond. This, and not paeans to the countries’ shared history on battlegrounds, is what is driving Washington’s desire to work more closely with Australia. That sentiment is true at both the elite and popular levels.

Polling reveals that Americans are willing to take significant risks to defend Australia. Biden’s statement that the ‘US has no closer or more reliable ally than Australia’ should be seen as a reflection of these views, and a desire to help turbocharge Australia’s efforts.

Of course, America’s desire to shore up its alliances and display its Indo-Pacific focus goes far beyond its relationship with Australia. But given the amount of trust required to share nuclear secrets and collaborate on cutting-edge technology, AUKUS could only have been undertaken with the closest of allies. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared in May, ‘The US will not leave Australia alone on the field.’ AUKUS should be seen as a significant attempt to make good on that statement.

In strategic terms, AUKUS is largely driven by Washington’s recognition that it needs more capable players in the field (or, rather, in and under the sea) to help correct a shifting balance of power. China’s decades-long economic expansion has allowed its rulers to rapidly modernise its military. Beijing now possesses the world’s second largest defence budget, fields the largest conventional missile force, and controls the biggest navy and coastguard.

While China has poured resources into defence and rapidly grown its forces, the US and its allies and partners have not kept pace. The US still has a military advantage over China, but the gap has been rapidly closing in Asia, and in certain domains it may already have been erased. Without an urgent drive to address such trends, the regional balance of power may soon tip in China’s favour.

Responding to such imbalances requires greater numbers and more advanced capabilities. AUKUS holds out the possibility of fielding more forces and upgrading their capabilities. As China has not yet developed robust anti-submarine capabilities, nuclear-powered submarines can offset Beijing’s advantages—if more Australian, British and American submarines can be put in the water on an accelerated timeline.

A final American motivation is the hope that AUKUS will galvanise greater investments, efforts and collaborations by other nations concerned by the rapid growth of China’s military and its increasingly assertive use. While the sensitivity of the technology being shared and the complexity of the logistical requirements mean AUKUS will remain limited, the idea of nations working together to balance China’s rise is by no means exclusionary. This can already be seen with Japan’s and India’s contributions to the Quad.

Southeast Asia’s initial response to AUKUS has been more varied, but Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines have all shown a willingness to enhance their defence capacities and augment their security partnerships, even if defence spending across the region remains low.

Europe too has shown interest in increasing its military presence, which makes it even more important to encourage greater regional involvement by France, despite its loss of Australia’s submarine contract. Some of these efforts are more aspirational than others, but the more coordinated efforts take place, the more convincing becomes the argument that Beijing is no longer operating in a permissive security environment.

The desire to empower America’s closest allies; the need to demonstrate the US commitment to, and prioritisation of, the Indo-Pacific region; the respect for and trust of Australia; the drive to balance Beijing with more robust defence capabilities for its allies; and the hope that bold actions will galvanise more nations to act all played a part in Washington’s decision to support AUKUS. Canberra may have initiated this deal with London, but Washington rightly saw the opportunity to advance its own strategic goals.

Australia’s 2020 defence strategic update concluded that the regional security environment was deteriorating more rapidly than earlier assessments indicated, requiring new thinking and new action.

Recognition of an altered landscape and the need to mobilise greater collective efforts can produce radical shifts in what is necessary, and what is possible.

During the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared, "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present." Thus he laid the political, moral and strategic groundwork for the Emancipation Proclamation to formally abolish slavery in America. "As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew." Attempting to motivate his fellow Americans, Lincoln concluded that his nation could succeed only by concert, not with, "Can any of us imagine better?" but with, "Can we all do better?" That simple statement preceded one of the boldest acts of statecraft in American history.

Many questions about AUKUS remain unanswered, and critical ones may not yet have been asked. But Washington and Canberra seem to have made the same bet, that only collective effort, and not individual actions, will produce lasting security and stability.

Charles Edel is a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a global fellow at the Wilson Center. He previously served on the US secretary of state’s policy planning staff and is a co-author of "The lessons of tragedy: statecraft and world order."

This article appears courtesy of ASPI's The Strategist blog and may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.