An awkward launch does not change the fact we should welcome the AUKUS defence pact

The new security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US is a welcome development in a changing world—but it could have been so much better handled

September 20, 2021
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Biden and Johnson during a press conference about the new AUKUS initiative last week. Newscom / Alamy Stock Photo

Surprises in international affairs are usually best avoided. The AUKUS defence and security partnership, announced without any of the normal preliminaries by the leaders of the UK, the United States and Australia on Wednesday, caught Nato and EU nations awkwardly on the hop. For France, that surprise had the added element of perceived international humiliation. The announcement that the first AUKUS initiative was collaboration on nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy came as Australia cancelled a huge contract for building diesel submarines for France. The strategic partnership between Canberra and Paris that this contract had ushered in appeared to have been trashed. 

Yet uncertainty now exists over the long-term implications of the new AUKUS agreement, coming as it does at a moment of heightened geopolitical tension. It is important that the Australian decision is not seen as the harbinger of a US-inspired Cold War with China.

On its own terms, the AUKUS security partnership is a timely development that deserves to be welcomed by all those genuinely concerned about the balance of power in the Pacific. It does not reduce our fundamental commitment to Nato—something that President Biden and PM Johnson need to demonstrate publicly. There will be those concerned about whether working with Australia on nuclear propulsion is consistent with our international obligations. I believe it is (and this is nuclear technology for reactors for propulsion, nothing to do with nuclear weapons). 

It is nevertheless important that both the US and the UK demonstrate that they continue to take our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty extremely seriously, especially with the NPT Review Conference coming up sometime in 2022. Australia will also have to show that it will adhere to the highest international standards for safeguarding, transparency, verification and accountancy for nuclear material. I am sure that Australia will do all that is necessary in that respect, as the US and the UK have always done. 

We will have to wait for the promised 18 months of joint work before we know exactly how Australia wants to procure the new nuclear submarine capability it has decided on and what it means for UK industry. There is also the question of what support might be sought from the Royal Navy, which has built up so much expertise in operating nuclear-powered submarines, especially with the current experience of introducing into service the boats of the Astute class—the latest of which, Agincourt, is expected to be commissioned in 2026. Officers of the Royal Australian Navy hold The Queen’s Commission and are able therefore to serve on board warships of the Royal Navy, so I am sure there will be many opportunities to help Australia with the major transition that nuclear propulsion will involve.

The wider AUKUS security agreement should also bring benefit to British industry, including by enhancing collaboration with the US and Australia on technologies such as artificial intelligence, cyber capabilities, quantum computing and additional undersea capabilities. It promises a deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains. At best this could create hundreds of highly-skilled scientific and engineering roles across our high-tech sectors, but all remains to play for as the details are worked out.

“It is important that the Australian decision is not seen as the harbinger of a US-inspired Cold War with China”

Equally, the switch by Australia to seeking nuclear- rather than diesel-powered submarines is entirely rational and justified when seen against the changing international threats which confront the country. As a sovereign nation, Australia is entitled to seek to equip its armed forces as it thinks fit to meet its changing needs. Diesel submarines are not best suited to the future operational requirements of the Australian Navy, given their inevitably limited range and time submerged. They would not have been optimal for contributing to the long-term balance of forces in the Asia Pacific region. It must have been a hard decision to change procurement strategy, but the move represents a coming of age of the Royal Australian Navy and its national security thinking. 

And yet, and yet, we could have wished for a more thoughtful presentation of these two essentially separate decisions—the Australian decision to switch from diesel to nuclear submarine propulsion and the wish of the US, UK and Australia to have closer defence relations. And for a timing that was not driven by the understandable—but second-order—concern of the Biden administration to move the public on from the Afghan crisis, nor the desire of Boris Johnson to score points for global Britain. 

It would be a tragedy for our national security, and that of France, if this clumsiness led to a serious rift and to damage to Nato. It is important to recognise the blow that cancellation will have to French industrial strategy for its naval sector, with jobs and investment lost. With the French president Emmanuel Macron running for re-election, this unexpected trilateral announcement was bound to be provocative. And to cap it all, it came on the eve of official celebrations arranged in Washington for the anniversary of the French victory over the British fleet in the battle of Chesapeake Bay, a decisive event in the American war of independence. 

There will be many in France (especially in naval circles, recalling the 1940 attack on the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kébir to prevent it falling into Vichy and Nazi hands) muttering Albion Perfide. Yet we have so many national security interests in common with France. Any serious threat to one has for years been recognised by president and prime minister as a threat to the other. We are working together on counter-terrorist operations and on key defence initiatives (including on nuclear research facilities). 

I am sure there was no intent anywhere in the British government to put one over France, or to provoke the incendiary reaction from Paris to the announcement. I hope that those in Paris whose task is to care about national security will, on calm reflection, recognise the heart of the matter. We have shared bilateral interests and collective Nato interests that are essential to protect, and London will understand sympathetically the need to help reinforce those bridges.