A new normal for the South China Sea after Australia's submarine deal

The country's strategic shift alongside the UK and US is about more than a naval contract

The question of the week was "is the AUKUS alliance meaningful or merely provocation?"

Chatham House experts set out to give answers under the umbrella of that headline.

Nearly all roads in the issue led to China.

“This pact has been forged as a result of a number of key issues. Firstly, as China asserts its power in the Indo-Pacific region – particularly its naval and economic power – the US is looking for determined and capable partners to counter China’s geostrategic challenges,” wrote Patricia Lewis, the think tank’s security expert.

Looking at the impact on the diplomatic landscape, the institution’s China expert, Kerry Brown, said it would be a moment that would be seen as a turning point.

“For China, it is another diplomatic failure,” he said. “China cannot hide its power but its last two years have been a masterclass in how to lose friends and fail to influence people. Despite this, it will not change the reality that China is, and will continue to be, the great rising power of the region, and that this is a testament to that. The era of the US jealously guarding its security sovereignty is over. It now needs to face China in concert with others.

“The main issue is what this sort of co-operation will do. Will it impede China’s intentions in the region? A little, but not significantly.”

A third expert said the issue of most concern to the new partners was likely to be the free flow of data, in a twist on the traditional principle of freedom of navigation from state-sponsored encroachment.

"As part of this defence agreement, the UK, US, and Australia are aiming to protect the undersea fibre optic cables that provide part of the military and civilian communication for the West,” said Beyza Unal. “The cross-section of quantum, artificial intelligence and cyber is equally significant because quantum communication technologies would allow new types of encryption, and thus would make eavesdropping obsolete. Similarly, with artificial intelligence and machine learning applications, the parties could detect known cyber threats to undersea cables.”

Just in a handful of quotes it is possible to see the diverse range of implications stemming from what could otherwise be seen as a fairly big naval procurement deal.

Stung by the loss of its own contract, France went into a fury. It accused the US of orchestrating a "knife in the back" of a Nato ally. The head of the French navy was visiting Washington but pulled out of a dinner to mark the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes – the 1781 battle that sealed the first transatlantic alliance.

That does not explain the seismic reaction in Europe. Other states from Germany down have made clear they will distance themselves from the new alliance. The EU’s foreign policy chief said that in the wake of Brexit, the move demonstrated the need for European strategic and defence autonomy.

Certainly the policy shift behind AUKUS has sprung ready made from the realms of secret planning behind the scenes to the world of real time defence postures.

Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton explained last week that there would be moves “significantly enhancing our force posture co-operation, increasing interoperability and deepening alliance activities in the Indo-Pacific”.

He said there would be a new umbrella seeing “rotational deployments of all types of US military aircraft to Australia” and “combined logistics sustainment and capability for maintenance to support our enhanced activities”.

The view from Beijing appears to be that after Afghanistan, the global situation has reverted very quickly back to what it was in August 2001, before the attacks that triggered that long war.

Washington was then eyeball to eyeball with Beijing. The reverberations of the shooting down of a US spy plane over Hainan Island just months before were still playing out. The contested issues of the South China Sea and Taiwan were driving geopolitics with a polar force.

China has more cards to play 20 years on. The Anglo countries represent a small slice of the global economy and are not dominant in technology, as they were at the turn of the century.

For its part, the US is forcing choices in a policy that began under President Donald Trump and has seen President Joe Biden double down, deepening ties with Australia, Japan and India and putting countries such as New Zealand, as well as the South Pacific region on the spot.

The pipeline of technology transfers from California across the Pacific has been shut down and there is a sense of purpose about putting together new alliances.

Nuclear power submarines are just the first step of a set of arrangements including joint fleets and new port positionings that will be interpreted as a military build-up. China will naturally respond.

For all sides there is a self-vindicating dynamic behind this announcement. That’s why it is definitely meaningful development.

Published: September 18th 2021, 3:03 PM
Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.