AUKUS: Will there be repercussions for NATO as members’ eye the South China Sea?

By Aditya Goel

The debate surrounding the South China Sea continues following the signing of the AUKUS military alliance last month. Contentions over the region have been on and off the news but the recent pact made between the UK, Australia and US has triggered a reaction from NATO and its members. On the 15th of September, the AUKUS military alliance was signed with the aim of providing collective security to the Asia-Pacific region. The three powers have stated the pact will work to “keep the Indo-Pacific region safe” by supplying submarines to the Royal Australian Navy. With the main aim of modernising the Australian navy, the Australian government, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, will procure nuclear propelled submarines from the US. The first project in this three-way partnership is to deliver a nuclear-powered fleet to Australia. AUKUS is considered an attempt to counter Chinese influence in the highly contested South China Sea, and thwart China’s objective to achieve autonomous dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.

The pact was agreed to at the expense of a French deal with Australia, in which France agreed to build 12 diesel submarines for the government in Canberra. The deal was negotiated under the presidency of François Hollande in 2016 and an agreement worth $38.6 billion was decided between Australia and France. The Australian government has acknowledged that the submarine deal with France had already stimulated tensions between China and Australia. As such, it has been speculated that Australia favoured a deal with the US because it considered the nation a more reliable partner for its security than France, as well as one with more resources. The US has also been trying to expand its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, and most world leaders would concur that the US presents a worthy opponent in confronting China’s fast-growing influence. The US also presents a dependable ally to Australia due to the close relationship the nation has with the US intelligence community through the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement.

However, NATO alliances have been triggered with the end of the French-Australian deal and the creation of AUKUS. The EU has backed the French government’s animosity following the termination of the Australian-French deal, stating it was an immeasurable loss for France . Indeed, the submarine deal agreed to in 2016 by France and Australia was considered a golden opportunity for the former to exercise considerable power in the Asia-Pacific region. Over 1.5 million French citizens live in the Indo-Pacific region, concentrated in Reunion, Mayotte, French Polynesia and New Caledonia. The pact was in part a means to secure these territories in the Asia-Pacific region – which is becoming increasingly militarised. This deal was seen to be an enormous step taken by the French government for the security of their citizens living in Asia – France as well as the EU have made clear their unhappiness with the actions of the Australian government. A very stringent statement was recently made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long time foreign policy advisor, where he mentioned that the Indo-Pacific security pact was an ‘insult to a NATO partner’, incited a ‘big loss of trust in Biden’s administration’ and that Biden was ‘treating allies in a way which is not acceptable’ as well as one which followed the route set by his predecessor Donald Trump. As such, AUKUS is proving to be a deal which may irreparably impact international alliances as they are known now.

The turn towards a deal with the UK above one with France also sparks anger from the EU.  The UK has achieved an inordinate landmark post-Brexit by allying with the US and Australia on this deal. The UK can also market the deal as one that ‘liberates’ them from Europe’s fetter, alongside their free trade agreement with Australia. The UK’s agenda for 2021 has the United Nations Climate Change Conference on it too, which could further bolster their international standing should they manage to successfully host the event. For Johnson this will be a concrete means to consolidate the UK as a strong nation in the aftermath of Brexit. Events such as these, alongside AUKUS, have helped Johnson exonerate the idea of a “Global Britain,” which has been the PM’s top priority since he was elected. Johnson commented on the pact stating, “The UK, Australia and US are natural allies – while we may be separated geographically, our interests and values are shared. The AUKUS alliance will bring us closer than ever, creating a new defence partnership and driving jobs and prosperity. This partnership will become increasingly vital for defending our interests in the Indo-Pacific region and, by extension, protecting our people back at home.” However, the pact has created a rift between NATO allies, as demonstrated by the withdrawal of French ambassadors from Canberra and Washington last month and the cancellation of a UK-French ministerial meeting on missile collaboration. The deal also binds the US into European security – aligning them with a major European power that is not an EU one, another reason for the bloc’s unhappiness over the deal. The debacle over AUKUS may also change French foreign policy, incentivising them to distance themselves from the Biden administration’s offensive stance towards China. As such, though the US was quick to soothe tensions with France, with Biden calling French president Macron to apologise for not consulting on the deal, there is no doubt the transatlantic alliance has been shaken. The deal could give rise to a new global order, and a further fracturing of the already fragile ties between the UK and Europe – the future of NATO, therefore, remains unknown.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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