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Four Things to Know About the New U.S.-U.K.-Australia Submarine Deal

Who hates it more: the Chinese or the French?
September 17, 2021
Four Things to Know About the New U.S.-U.K.-Australia Submarine Deal
French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (3rd L) stand on the deck of HMAS Waller, a Collins-class submarine operated by the Royal Australian Navy, at Garden Island in Sydney on May 2, 2018. - Macron arrived in Australia on May 1 on a rare visit by a French president with the two sides expected to agree on greater cooperation in the Pacific to counter a rising China. (Photo by ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP) / POOL SOLELY FOR BEST IMAGE AND ABACA (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

A new security alliance announced this week brings together the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia in a globe-spanning partnership evocative of Winston Churchill’s hopes for a union of “the English-speaking peoples.” The three countries are already ensconced in multiple security and intelligence relationships, but the new agreement—called “AUKUS”— brings a significant development: The United States and United Kingdom will help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines. These ships will be an important factor in protecting both Australia and freedom of navigation.

Here are four things to know about the new agreement.

1. Strengthening the Quad

The Quad, officially the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is the name for a security cooperation effort among the United States, Australia, Japan, and India. It is an Indo-Pacific security non-entity in search of a vision and formalization. The Quad heads of government are due to meet next week for the first time in person since Biden became president. (The Quad met virtually in March.)

Adding the United Kingdom to the Quad would be a good idea if it could be done, but parachuting a non-Pacific country into the Quad would likely be a stretch, especially given the complicated history of U.K.-India relations.

AUKUS looks like a reasonable alternative. It makes sense to involve America’s most important ally, with its sizable military, in the decision-making process on matters relating to China. And burden-sharing with the United Kingdom makes good sense.

No less important is what this deal will mean for Australia’s military capabilities. AUKUS will elevate Australia’s status to the United Kingdom’s in its military relationship with the United States, allowing for the sharing of key military technologies that the United States is reluctant to share with other countries. By increasing a Quad member’s military capabilities, AUKUS will thereby increase the Quad’s aggregate military power.

2. Making the U.K. a Pacific Power

There exists no closer alliance in the world than the U.S.-U.K. post-WWII “special relationship.” The military-to-military ties are especially close, and the United States frequently consults with the United Kingdom on everything from intelligence to arms sales to training. The recently published U.K. Integrated Review, the equivalent of the U.S. National Defense Strategy, emphasizes the closeness of the relationship:

The United States will remain the UK’s most important strategic ally and partner. The heart of the relationship is a human one: the flow of people and ideas between our countries, our shared history, and a common language. . . . Across the full spectrum of defence, intelligence, cyber power, counter-terrorism and nuclear, the US-UK partnership underpins our security and saves lives. We will continue to deepen our relationship, including through the Carrier Strike Group, joint work on emerging technologies, and collaboration on our future nuclear deterrent. The US is the UK’s biggest single bilateral trading partner, accounting for over £230 billion in trade, almost 20% of UK exports and the largest single source of FDI in 2019.

The review also summarizes the U.K.’s very different relationship with China:

China’s growing international stature is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today, with major implications for British values and interests and for the structure and shape of the international order. The fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours, presents challenges for the UK and our allies. . . . China also presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security. . . . We will not hesitate to stand up for our values and our interests where they are threatened, or when China acts in breach of existing agreements.

The Royal Navy is much smaller today than when “Britannia ruled the waves,” but AUKUS gives the U.K. a strong new presence in Pacific affairs.

3. The French Are Mad

Before yesterday’s announcement of AUKUS, Australia had a deal with France to acquire diesel submarines. Australia canceled the agreement in favor of American and British “technology and capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines.” The French are claiming to have been “stabbed in the back.”

The French do have a point—Australia did abruptly withdraw from their deal. And the Biden administration, in what is becoming a trend, blindsided its NATO ally, giving no advance notice to the French, let alone the courtesy of consultation. But below the surface, the French might be smarting at their own inability to deliver: The production of the French-made submarines had been delayed several times and there had been huge cost increases, angering the Australians, who were already signaling willingness to cancel the agreement. The Australians might not have “stabbed the French in the back” if the French had completed the contract on time and on budget. C’est la vie.

4. A Good But Incomplete Idea

The United States built the current international system when it had overwhelming military and economic dominance of the globe. America’s power relative to China has declined, but the United States and its allies together are still insuperable. The more allies America can bring, and the closer we can bring them, into a coalition capable of standing up to China, the more successful that coalition is likely to be. Involving the United Kingdom in Indo-Pacific naval affairs is a good move. Among the likely positive effects may be bringing the U.K. closer into the anti-China orbit, avoiding mistakes like the 5G deal that the Boris Johnson government reached with Huawei (and discarded later).

Of course, AUKUS isn’t sufficient. The United Kingdom is not a member of the European Union anymore and is increasingly isolated from the continent’s politics. The next step will be to find a way to solidify the E.U. in the anti-China bloc—which will be harder given the colère of the French.

More generally, the United States is asking the Europeans to participate in a China strategy that has yet to be formulated, to be members of an Indo-Pacific alliance system that is nonexistent, and to serve a policy objective that is foggy at best. There is little consensus in the United States about China strategy, but the formation of AUKUS is a useful brick for once there is a decision about how we want the house designed.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri is a policy associate at the Renew Democracy Initiative, where he works on strengthening freedom at home and advancing its reach abroad. He studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.