Christopher Ankersen & James Boutilier: AUKUS-ward: Canada needs a strategy before it starts worrying about missing the boat.

The recent announcement of AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States), an enhanced strategic relationship between the three countries, shocked many. France was upset at losing a lucrative contract for diesel electric submarines.  China was annoyed that, at least in their view, the arrangement seemed to be a threat to peace and security in the region. Some observers in Canada lamented the fact that our country was left out of the arrangement; Trudeau dismissed AUKUS as a “deal for nuclear submarines, which Canada is not currently or any time soon in the market for.” Both Canadian perspectives are premature. Prior to worrying about which clubs to join or subs to buy, Canada must develop a comprehensive security strategy that properly focuses on the Indo-Pacific.

What is it all about?

AUKUS comes at a critical time. China has succeeded in building the largest navy in the world. Australia is engaged in the biggest and costliest revitalization of their navy since the Second World War. The United Kingdom is desperate to maintain its global relevance after a shaky start to its post Brexit life. The United States Navy is struggling to decide on its fleet mix, as Washington switches it priorities from a worldview dominated by the so-called War on Terror to one focused on Great Power Competition.

If Great Power Competition is to become the order of the day, there is no place that highlights the geostrategic realities of naval warfare than the waters of the newly christened Indo-Pacific mega-region. The distances involved are enormous and any encounters with the Chinese navy would force the USN to operate at the end of vastly attenuated supply lines. The support from friends and allies would be absolutely critical if the United States is to prevail.  In this context, submarines have already become the coin of the realm in terms of Indo-Pacific arms acquisitions.       

No ally of the US has felt the pressure of China’s bold new approach to foreign more than Australia. Relations between Canberra and Beijing have deteriorated drastically over the past eighteen months; China has tried to hold Australian extractive industries hostage and imposed astronomical tariffs on wine imports.

While AUKUS does represent an important international security signal, it is important to understand exactly what it entails. While not the most important aspect of the deal, let’s start with submarines. Australia has long been looking to replace its aging fleet of six diesel electric boats. Initially, they dismissed the prospect of nuclear propulsion and in 2016 signed a contract with France’s Naval Group to construct twelve advanced submarines. While the details and timelines of Australia’s change of mind are not yet clear, the French project was beset with cost overruns and at least one design proposal had been rejected by the Australians earlier this year. 

At some point, Australia decided that it wanted to acquire nuclear propulsion submarines. Such boats would be expensive, but would provide a greatly enhanced range, enabling the Royal Australian Navy to patrol for longer—and potentially farther—than any conventionally powered submarines can. While this would represent an increase in the ability counter the Chinese navy, Australia can only expect delivery of its new nuclear subs by the late 2030s or early 2040s. This is not going to upset the ‘balance of forces’ in the Pacific in the short term.

While building submarines for Australia is a key feature, there are other, more important aspects to the AUKUS arrangement. For instance, there is a possibility that the United States will base some of its existing nuclear submarines in on Australia’s west coast. Moreover, it would be best to regard the arrangement as a wider commitment to the development of joint capabilities and technology sharing, as expressed by the UK Ministry of Defence in their announcement of the deal. Besides helping Australia to acquire nuclear submarines, that commitment entails collaboration between all three nations on hypersonic weapons; artificial intelligence; underwater surveillance and detection systems; elements of cybersecurity, including quantum computing. 

Collaboration in these advanced and sensitive areas would mean that the defence industrial bases and supply chains of the three countries would be highly integrated with each other and separated from other countries. For instance, it has been suggested that the United States wanted to prevent China from further penetrating Australia’s computing industries and that this deal effectively ‘ring fences’ them, putting them out of bounds to other foreign investment or involvement.

Greater even than the material aspects of the AUKUS arrangement are its symbolic dimensions. The deal has put China on notice that Australia is not willing to sacrifice its security in exchange for Chinese prosperity. Furthermore, it is a strong signal that the United States is not alone it is desire to constrain China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. Finally, for Britain, the deal has given some further credence to the notion of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ being at the top-table, as outlined in its new ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’.   

The Need for a Canadian Security Strategy that Includes the Indo-Pacific

With this in mind, we think that Justin Trudeau’s dismissal of AUKUS as nothing more than “a deal for nuclear submarines” was churlish. Indeed, many of the areas of AUKUS attention—from quantum computing to underwater surveillance—have long been high priorities for Canada. In fact, nuclear submarines, with their ability to remain underwater for long periods of time, have featured on Canada’s naval wish list, too: for example, in 1987, our White Paper on Defence included a proposal to acquire twelve of them for use under the Arctic ice.  So actually, CAUKUS might not sound like such a bad idea after all…

Stop right there. We are getting ahead of ourselves. Any focus on capabilities is premature. What Canada needs, much more than any piece of shiny new kit, is a sound appreciation of how it is going to navigate the current and future security environment, at home and abroad. Based on that foundation, it should then develop a comprehensive security policy, one that includes priority objectives and focus areas. In turn, that policy could then drive efforts to organize and equip our security entities—military and civilian. 

Despite also being a Pacific nation, Canada has not prioritized Asia in its policy dealings. As Professor Kim Nossal has opined, Canada’s foreign and defence thinking is firmly anchored in the North Atlantic. This can no longer be a brake on our ability to view our security in more comprehensive, global terms: both NATO and the EU, for instance, have recently articulated Indo-Pacific engagement concepts while Canada has not. Any such reckoning must come to terms with the reality that China is no longer a ‘rising power.’ While it is true that China continues to develop and refine its military capabilities, it represents a challenge here and now. How will Canada choose to manage that competition? Will it do so solely through trade deals and diplomacy or will there be military dimension to our relationship, too? Does Canada need to concern itself with protecting its territory from incursion, as China increasingly eyes the Arctic, for instance? Or should Canada project itself into Asia, developing commercial, diplomatic, cultural, and security ties with countries in the region, such as Japan, South Korea, or with ASEAN member states? 

Only when we have clear answers to these fundamental questions, including, first and foremost, what our political objectives are in the Indo-Pacific, should we proceed to concerns about such details as specific kinds of submarines to buy or defence arrangements to join.



Bonnie Girard, “China’s AUKUS Response Highlights Beijing’s Bunker Mentality,” The Diplomat. September 30, 2021.; accessed October 4, 2021; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference on September 16, 2021,”; accessed October 4, 2021. 

Adrian Morrow, “Canada left out as U.S., U.K., Australia strike deal to counter China,” The Globe and Mail.  September 15, 2021.; accessed October 4, 2021; Trevor Hunnicutt and Nandita Bose and David Brunnstrom and Colin Packham, “Canada left out of security deal between U.S., Australia and U.K. Trudeau unconcerned,” The National Post.  September 16, 2021.; accessed October 4, 2021. 

Leyland Cocco, “Trudeau lambasted over exclusion from US-led military alliance as election nears,” The Guardian.  September 17, 2021.; accessed October 4, 2021.

The White House, “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,” September 15, 2021.; accessed October 4, 2021.

Abigail Ng, “Tensions will likely grow as China seeks bigger role in the Arctic,” CNBC News, May 20, 2021.; accessed October 4, 2021.

Dr. Christopher Ankersen is Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs, where he teaches in the Transnational Security concentration. Prior to joining NYU, Christopher was the Security Advisor for the United Nations system in Thailand (2012-2017).  Previously, he held positions at the UN Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (2010-2012); the UN Offices in Geneva (2007-2010) and Vienna (2006-2007); and with the Department of Safety and Security in New York, where he was Desk Officer for Iraq (2005-2006). From 1988 to 2000, Professor Ankersen was an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Dr. James Boutilier is the former Special Advisor (Policy) at Canada’s Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters in Esquimalt, British Columbia. He was responsible for advising the Commander of Maritime Forces Pacific on matters of defence and foreign policy and maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region. Prior to this, Dr. Boutilier spent twenty-four years on staff at the Royal Roads Military College in Victoria as Head of the History Department and then as Dean of Arts. During his time at RRMC, he was instrumental in establishing the military and strategic studies degree program at the college and taught courses on naval history, contemporary Asia, the history of the Pacific, and strategic issues. He is also an adjunct professor of Pacific and Asian Studies at the University of Victoria and the President of the Maritime Awards Society of Canada.

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