In March 2021 the People's Republic of China emerged as the world's largest naval fleet, surpassing the US Navy. An advantage of around 60 ships, which will increase in 2024, when China will count on a fleet of at least 400 units. A goal already announced in 2018 by President Xi Jinping.
After the unsuccessful withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States announced the establishment of a new security cooperation alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia, whose first task is to assist Australia in building nuclear-powered submarines.
Considering its allies, the White House has shared only nuclear propulsion technology with the UK and Australia will be the next. Although the officials from the three countries denied that the new alliance was targeted to any country, European and US media believe that the move is intended to counter Chinese power and strength.
In addition to nuclear-powered submarines, the three countries will also strengthen cooperation in the areas of network technology, artificial intelligence and quantum technology. White House officials revealed that Britain played a strategic leadership role in reaching the alliance.
In Global Britain in a Competitive Age. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy of March 2021 - which sets out the government's geopolitical strategy after Brexit and outlines the UK role in the world over the next 10 years - the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, proposed to reposition UK's global strategy after Brexit. He announced the foreign and defense policy, stressing that the country would be deeply involved in the Indo-Pacific region in the future.
According to a statement released by the White House on September 15, the US-UK-Australia security alliance is named AUKUS, and is designed to strengthen the three countries' diplomatic, security and defense cooperation in the said region.
Under the new regional arrangement, the three countries will further strengthen information and technology sharing, as well as integrate science and supply chains and security and defense-related industrial bases.
The first key basis of the arrangement is the United States of America and the United Kingdom, with the aim of assisting Australia in building nuclear-powered submarines. The three countries will spend 18 months discussing how to implement the plan.
As said above, before Australia the United Kingdom was the only country with which the United States shared nuclear propulsion technology. It should be recalled that during the Cold War, after the Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite (the Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957), the United States and Britain signed a joint defense agreement on July 3, 1958 (the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement) to share key military nuclear technology. Britain obviously ignored the rest of Europe, about which, even before Napoleon, it had cared very little except as a rampart from the South and the East. However, let us revert to the present day.
Compared to conventional submarines, nuclear-powered ones are faster; they have greater endurance and attack capabilities and are more difficult to detect. Currently, only six countries in the world have this type of weapon: the United States, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, France, India and the United Kingdom.
According to the AUKUS plan, these submarines will be built in Adelaide, the capital of the State of South Australia, but the Commonwealth of Australia has no nuclear industry nor the necessary fissile materials. US officials have revealed that nuclear materials can be shipped from other countries to that federal State. The USA and Australia already signed an agreement in 2010, which stipulates that Australia will not retract or increase the amount of nuclear materials sent to the country from the United States, and it should also be recalled that Australia is also a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, has already put his hands on, declaring that the construction of nuclear-powered submarines does not necessarily mean the production of nuclear weapons. He emphasized that Australia did not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, nor did it seek a chance in civilian nuclear power.
Nevertheless, some experts believe that Australia's construction of nuclear-powered submarines is off to a bad start. In an interview with The Washington Post, James Acton - Director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace - pointed out that the move severely undermined the nuclear non-proliferation system and could also trigger an arms race.
He sharply predicted that, after Australia's precedent, Iran might also announce the construction of nuclear-powered submarines: after all, Iran is a subject of international law and a co-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as is Australia.
In the past, while such a possible Iranian request might have been opposed by the international community, with AUKUS it will be lent credence, unless the aforementioned international law also formally establishes the existence of first-ranking and second-ranking States.
On the political level, Hugh White, a former Australian defense official, stated in an interview with The New York Times that Australia's move was not just to build nuclear-powered submarines, but also a strategic adjustment to significantly deepen anti-Chinese cooperation with the United States.
When the new Indo-Pacific security alliance was announced on September 15, US President Joseph Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison were careful not to mention the People’s Republic of China.
President Biden said that the establishment of the new alliance was used for ensuring long-term peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. US officials stressed that the trilateral cooperation was not directed against any other country, but was designed to safeguard the strategic interests of the three countries.
But whether it is the Australian media, the British media such as The Guardian or the US media such as CNN, they all agree that the alliance is directly targeting China.
Over the next few days, President Biden will also meet at the White House with the leaders of the "four-country group": the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, on the other hand, said at a press conference on September 16 that mutual respect and trust are the prerequisites for dialogue and cooperation between the countries.
He stressed that the current difficult situation in China-Australia relations stemmed solely from Australia. The most urgent task for Australia is to address the setback in relations between the two countries, as well as seriously assess whether it views the People’s Republic of China as a partner or a threat, and hence sincerely uphold mutual respect and treat each other as equals.
Let the principles and spirit of a comprehensive strategic partnership - not a sectoral one targeted against someone - govern the relations between the two countries.
In an interview with The Guardian, a senior White House official revealed that, when the new understanding was established, the UK played the role of mediator on all key issues and was "a very strong strategic leader".
It should be noted that, on the issue of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Britain and the USA had severe divergences. The British Secretary of State for Defence, Robert Ben Lobban Wallace, repeatedly criticized the United States. Therefore, in theory, the USA can also bypass Britain and directly reach an agreement with Australia on nuclear-powered submarines.
The senior White House official - who disclosed the above-mentioned issue - believes that this time the UK is so active in the three-nation military alliance because it had to “pay a deposit” for the policy described in Global Britain.
Global Britain, in itself, is a grandiose and vague concept. According to the UK government's official website, the core of Global Britain is to invest again in UK's relations with other countries, so as to promote an international order based on well-defined rules, and to demonstrate that the UK is a well-advised and trusted country in the international arena.
Some analysts believe that Boris Johnson's Global Britain is trying to emulate Churchill's three-circle diplomacy, e.g. the three areas of influence in British foreign policy: the Empire and the Commonwealth, the Anglo-Saxon world - in particular, the special relationship with the United States, i.e. the 51st star - and Europe.
The UK uses its close relationship with the second circle to act as a link between the other two circles to safeguard Britain's interests and status as a (former) great power.
Meanwhile, let us see what France thinks about it. The French Ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, was recalled to Paris on September 18. Before leaving, he criticized Australia for having made a “huge mistake” on the issue of submarine construction. Ambassador Thebault arrived at Sydney airport on the evening of September 18th, from where he took a flight to leave Australia and return to France.
On September 17, the French Foreign Ministry issued a communiqué announcing the immediate recall of the Ambassador to the United States, Philippe Étienne, and of the Ambassador to Australia, the aforementioned Thebault.
The communiqué stated that Australia had abandoned the submarine-building agreement reached with France and had instead established a “new partnership” with the United States on the development of nuclear submarines - an “unacceptable behavior” between allies.
Before returning to France, Ambassador Thebault said that Australia's cancellation of the submarine contract with France was a "big mistake" and that Australia's handling of the partnership was "very bad". He revealed that this was not just a contractual issue, but an issue of partnership based on trust and mutual understanding.
Ambassador Thebault reiterated that at no time did Australia give France any clear signal to suspend the relevant contract. He said that France was kept completely in the dark about the steps taken and during that period many Australian officials not only continued to discuss the project with France, but also expressed their willingness to make the project a success.
No comments have come so far from Australia.
Professor Valori is President of the International World Group