Clearing up Misconceptions About AUKUS
An Interview with Michael Shoebridge
Given that AUKUS is still within its infancy, how should we understand it’s objectives?
AUKUS came as a surprise to the world, so it’s not a shock that it was a surprise to other partners, such as other members of Five Eyes like Canada and New Zealand. There are five big things that AUKUS is not, that have not been easily realized through public discourse. It is not just a pact sharing nuclear submarine technology or an avenue for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines. Everyone has gone straight into this conversation about nuclear submarines, and in doing so, have missed the larger point, which is that AUKUS is a technology accelerator.
Another misconception is that AUKUS represents an Anglosphere military alliance. It is not a military alliance. Australia doesn’t need to enter an alliance with the U.S as we already have the very durable ANZUS Treaty. We already have a relationship with the UK through the Five Eyes, as well as through our shared history. We probably don’t need a formal military alliance to have expectations of assisting each other in times of crisis and conflict. Some have speculated that AUKUS means the QUAD will be sidelined, and that this is a strategic shift towards a new minilateral. This is incorrect—the QUAD and AUKUS have completely different purposes. AUKUS is a much more narrowly focused technology partnership.
Related to this is another misconception—that Australia is not thinking about its future within the region we live in, but rather, amongst the US and UK. AUKUS is a complementary initiative to all relationships that Australia has in the Indo-Pacific. Australia will be as engaged in regional multilateral architecture as we were before. It is quite clear that the existing multilateral architecture within the region is comprised of ASEAN constructs, whether that be ASEAN Defense Ministers meetings, the East Asia Summit, or ASEAN decision making. A new architecture that complements this is required.
Finally, AUKUS is not a substitute for the Five Eyes intelligence partnership between Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the U.S and the UK.
AUKUS is a technology accelerator, focused on shifting the military balance in the Indo-Pacific. There has been an arms race in the Indo-Pacific, bolstered by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is supporting the imperatives of the Beijing government. AUKUS is indeed putting another runner in the arms race—that’s what it’s about—changing the military balance and preventing the erosion of deterrence of China by shifting the military balance in favor of those that do not want a powerful authoritarian state dictating the choices of everyone else in the region.
Most of the shifts in the regional military balance shift will happen before the nuclear submarines turn up. The nuclear submarines, which the conversation tends to focus upon, will be a later shift in the military balance.
How does AUKUS differ from the National Technology and Industrial Base initiatives (NTIB) between Canada, Australia, the U.S and the UK? Is this just an example of fast multilateralism, or is it a signal that Canada needs to take a stronger position on the promotion of Indo-Pacific security?
When I returned to Australia earlier in my career, I was involved in negotiating, and then implementing the U.S-Australia defence trade treaty. So why do we need AUKUS? It’s because these prior initiatives are failures. They involve overly broad sets of institutional, commercial, and political initiatives that are unable to make their way through all the vested NTIB interests in Australia, in the U.S, and Canada.
There are interests in Congress that don’t want American money and American jobs going to Australia. There are proprietary interests in how some of the big primes structure their operations, and they’re not terribly keen on creating new centers of excellence apart from the ones they already have. There is a web of existing regulation and policy in the U.S and in other nations, where different departments all must agree to broad initiatives of trade treaties, and defence trade treaties. AUKUS, is a ruthlessly focused initiative on technologies that have military value—AI, cyber, nuclear submarines, quantum technologies, and undersea technologies. Focusing on these key areas will deliver results much faster than attempting to bring on extremely broad institutional change.
Canada and other nations have had to look in the mirror with AUKUS, because if three Five Eyes countries had to create a new acceleration framework for technologies important for the alliance, then what is this arrangement needed for? It tells us that the incumbent institutional arrangements are not delivering outside the intelligence community on these key technology areas and if that’s true for the three AUKUS partners, how is it not true for the other two? This is a key strategic policy issue for Canada and for New Zealand.
The reason this minilateral has been formed is because of the shared sense of urgency and focus by the three partners. If Canada were to have the same urgency and focus about shifting the military balance in the Indo-Pacific, that would be something worth talking about. My perception is that Canada has talked for a long time, about being a Pacific power and having a Pacific focus, and yet, it seems to be a transatlantic, European-focused actor, with enough problems on its hands with the opening of the Arctic.
What has been the reaction so far in the Indo-Pacific region? Has Australia felt increased pressure either diplomatically or economically in the past few months, and if so, has this promoted greater urgency for making progress under the AUKUS agreement?
These three partners have joined together, because that’s what they must do. We have to accelerate technology into the hands of our militaries and adding others into the mix would probably slow that down. The ASEAN reaction is interesting but kind of predictable. Anyone who looks at surveys of ASEAN government thinkers, academics and industry would tell you that public statements about security provision, from partners like the U.S, Australia, India, and Japan, and any other actor than China are very welcome. However, they will be very quiet about welcoming it because there is a concern over making China unhappy but, there is a pretty much uniform assessment in Southeast Asia that China wants to be a hegemon in their region and will not be a benign one. That’s the basis for them quietly understanding and welcoming the purposes of AUKUS, but then expressing some misgivings, partly to mollify Beijing and partly because some aspects like nuclear submarines, do raise concerns over nuclear proliferation.
How should Canada perceive the willingness of the US and the UK to share nuclear propulsion technology with Australia? As we begin to think about replacing our aging Victoria-class submarines, are there lessons we can learn from Australia?
I suppose a big thing that changed in the Australian, U.S, and UK calculations around nuclear submarines was the need to deter Beijing. Prior to China becoming so overtly aggressive and building a force structure that needs new capabilities to deter it, neither of those three governments would have contemplated asking for nuclear submarine technology to be shared. As late as 2016, our strategic circumstances didn’t seem to warrant having the expense, complexity, and deterrent power of nuclear submarines. Now here we are in 2022, where our strategic circumstances do warrant that. It is those strategic circumstances that have changed the UK and US positions on this—and they were deeply held. U.S senior military personnel were saying, ‘we are never going to share our nuclear submarine technology with you, we don’t have enough of them ourselves so don’t bother asking.’ Well, guess what? We asked, and they agreed. That’s because the need is clear to all three of us.
If Canada establishes a driving purpose to protect and participate in Indo-Pacific security, to a level that makes nuclear submarines as part of a deterrent logical, then I think AUKUS says it’s an open discussion. I would say from an Australian point of view, the ideal way for Australia to get nuclear submarines is not to create some cottage industry centered in our Adelaide City, to build a small number of nuclear submarines; it’s going to be part of a much bigger joint enterprise with our AUKUS partners, and to look at how we can best augment the capacity that is producing nuclear submarines for these existing partners. That kind of logic would apply beautifully to Canada. As you know, Canada and Australia have experienced similar issues with our existing defense industrial bases.
I suppose it might sound a bit jarring because everything we’ve talked about is driven by a sense of urgency to really get the Australian, U.S and UK militaries in a position of greater military power, with the political will to use it, and that’s only required because we have dire strategic circumstances. That’s without even mentioning Russia. Everything we’ve talked about is driven by China, so I I’d be fascinated by readers’ reactions to that perception of the environment that we’re in, because Canada’s in that environment just as much as Australia is. I’m very hopeful that we’ve got a greater convergence of strategic assessments between Ottawa and Canberra, and if I’m right about that, we should expect some changes in Canadian policy. We should see some opportunities not just with AUKUS, but between Australia and Canada and I would welcome that being the case.
Michael Shoebridge Michael Shoebridge is the Director of ASPI’s Defence, Strategy and National Security program. He was a senior executive in the Defence organisation and has worked for 25 years in different parts of Australia’s national security community. His career has centred on the connection between strategy, capability and resources in national security.
Michael has been deputy in two defence intelligence agencies (DIO and ASD), ran the Defence, Intelligence and Research Coordination Division in the Prime Minister’s department, and was the senior policy representative for Defence in Australia’s Washington Embassy. He has worked with Ministers in two Commonwealth Ministers’ offices.