U.S., UK, Australia launch AUKUS: A new 'anti-Beijing' military pact

Australians will be able to build nuclear submarines with US technology. The agreement includes cooperation on artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technology. Beijing slams move as "irresponsible". Protests from France, which loses a contract for the sale of submarines to Canberra. New Zealand also distances itself.


Washington (AsiaNews) - The leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have announced a new military pact for the Indo-Pacific region. AUKUS (its name) is seen by many as a new tool to contain the geopolitical rise of China. The announcement came late last night in a joint statement by US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

According to analysts, AUKUS is the most important security agreement signed by the three countries since the end of the Second World War. It is separate from Five Eyes, the intelligence alliance that Washington, London and Canberra have with Canada and New Zealand.

The agreement will allow Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines for its fleet using U.S. technology and know-how. Currently, only the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and India can deploy this type of submarine. AUKUS also foresees a trilateral cooperation on artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and quantum technology applied to naval weapons. Canberra has made it clear that it does not intend to acquire nuclear weapons.

In their joint announcement, the three signatories never mention China, but they speak of regional security challenges that have "grown significantly": the indirect reference to Beijing is clear to all. It is not by chance that the Chinese embassy in Washington reacted accusing the three countries of "cold war mentality and ideological prejudice". Immediately afterwards, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the pact "extremely irresponsible". For Beijing, it "seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race."

Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, Biden wants to reinvigorate traditional U.S. alliances to counter Chinese advances. Tensions between the two powers continue to rise in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety. Chinese authorities recently adopted a regulation requiring foreign vessels to notify their entry into waters that China considers part of its territory.

Washington has already challenged Beijing's claim with a naval operation near Mischief Reef. James R. Holmes, a professor of maritime strategy at the US Naval War College in Newport, points out to AsiaNews that the language used by the Chinese in the regulation is "squishy." This increases the risk of misunderstandings and incidents between Chinese naval forces and those of other states. 

Australians are also concerned about China's growing military activism in the South China Sea. Relations between Canberra and Beijing have long deteriorated. The Morrison administration accuses China of "economic coercion": at the end of 2020, the Chinese imposed duties and purchase bans on key items of Australian exports.

Instead, the signing of AUKUS represents a quantum leap for British policy in the Western Pacific. London has sent its new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the region, but has been careful so far not to sail it near South China Sea islands occupied by Chinese garrisons or across the Taiwan Strait.

In one respect, the signing of AUKUS risks weakening the Western front against China. France has complained about being excluded from a "structural" partnership with Australia when Washington is asking the Europeans for more engagement in the Indo-Pacific. The biggest regret for the French, however, is losing a €31 billion order to supply the Australians with 12 new diesel-electric powered submarines: an agreement signed in 2016 by the transalpine company Naval Group (which has a joint venture in the military sector with Italy's Fincantieri).

Resistance also comes from New Zealand. In line with its traditional anti-nuclear policy (and a certain caution in relations with China), Wellington has declared that it will prevent Australian atomic submarines from entering its territorial waters. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has clarified that her government has not been proposed to subscribe to AUKUS.