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No gift: Indo-Pacific access is worth its weight in gold

9 May 2024 | Jennifer Parker

Image: AUKUS Meeting - President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the AUKUS meeting in San Diego, March 13, 2023. Photo credit: US State Department

The AUKUS capability pact, particularly the transfer of submarine nuclear-propulsion technology to Australia, is often framed as a gift; that somehow Australia’s oldest strategic partners, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), are effectively ‘doing Australia a favour’ in helping them acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

This false narrative generates significant consternation among defence analysts and commentators. Many of whom look to the upcoming elections in the UK and the US in late 2024 and question whether new governments there could put Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarine plans at risk.

Proponents of this mischaracterisation of AUKUS underestimate the nature of the agreement. Not only is Australia paying for the design and acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines under phases two and three of AUKUS Pillar I, but there is much more to this strategic deal than a simple foreign military sales transaction.

For the price of supporting the transfer of nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia, both the UK and US are gaining strategic access to Australia, an almost AU$5 billion (£2.6 billion) injection into each of their respective submarine industrial bases, and for Britain specifically, the ability to share the costs of designing and producing the replacement to the Astute-class nuclear-powered submarine.

Arguably, the most significant of these is the access both the UK and US will receive to Australia, and what this means for their respective postures in the Indo-Pacific.

Despite the existence of conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific is the ‘pacing arena’ – a region which has become increasingly central to global security. This centrality is driven by three main factors: demographics, dependence of the global economy on the region and the existence of a revisionist People’s Republic of China (PRC). Each of these three elements impact the outlooks of both the UK and the US. While the US’ interests as a Pacific Ocean country are readily apparent, Britain’s interests, even though the British home islands are geographically separated from the Indo-Pacific, are also clear.

Moving beyond notions of historical links, as a country still adapting to Brexit, the Indo-Pacific with its growing population, intricate diplomatic structures and economic potential, provides an opportunity for the UK. Britain’s 2021 achievement of ‘dialogue partner’ status of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and 2023 accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)  are but two examples of this.

The PRC’s revisionist approach to international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, also has clear ramifications for a maritime nation such as the UK. 

It is within this context which Britain has sought to develop its own toolkit on how it might influence security in the Indo-Pacific. It is evident that following the 2021 announcement of the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ that the UK views increased military deployments to the Indo-Pacific as a key element of its toolkit to attempt to shape security in the region. From the 2024 littoral response group deployment to the intended UK-led Carrier Strike Group deployment in 2025, the trend is clear. 

While such deployments are notable, Britain requires a persistent presence to move beyond symbolism and assist in shaping Indo-Pacific security; a difficult achievement given its geographical distance from the region and the reduction in Royal Navy escorts over the last 30 years. Although the need for persistent naval presence is partially realised by the Royal Navy’s permanent deployment of two Offshore Patrol Vessels to the region in 2021, the nature of this capability lacks strategic heft.

Enter AUKUS and the opportunity for the UK to have access to Australia’s submarine base, HMAS Stirling, and its enhanced submarine infrastructure under phase one of the capability pact’s nuclear-powered submarine optimal pathway. 

While details of phase one of AUKUS Pillar I are not exactly clear, the recently released Australian National Defence Strategy outlines the intent for the UK to make ‘longer and more frequent’ submarine deployments to Australia, ‘growing to a mature state’ of ‘up to four rotational US nuclear-powered submarines and one rotational UK nuclear-powered submarine’. 

The rotation rate of Royal Navy submarines through Australia is also unclear. However, it was certainly considered by His Majesty’s Government a footprint significant enough to prompt the UK and Australia to sign their first ever Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in 2023, despite their long standing historical strategic and cultural links.

Similarly, for the US the positioning of four rotational submarines in HMAS Stirling provides dispersal and defence in depth for their Pacific submarine fleet, out of direct range of the PRC’s extensive missile arsenal. But the AUKUS quid pro-quo for American access and posture goes even further. Since the announcement of AUKUS, the force posture initiatives agreed between Australia and the US have increased significantly. 

Prior to the announcement of the AUKUS agreement, US force posture initiatives in Australia consisted of access to Darwin for the Marine Rotation Forces Darwin agreed in 2012, and the Enhanced Air Cooperation initiative agreed in 2017. Since the signing of AUKUS in 2021, Australia and the US have enhanced the existing force posture initiatives and agreed to an extensive number of new force posture initiatives, including enhanced land cooperation, enhanced maritime cooperation, combined logistics sustainment and maintenance enterprise, P-8A Poseidon rotations, watercraft rotations, bomber rotations, and more.

Since the signing of AUKUS, it is clear from the vast number of agreements between Australia and the US, and to a lesser extent Australia and the UK, that a strategically important aspect of the AUKUS transaction is critical access to Australia, a country at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific.

A fulsome understanding of the nature of the AUKUS capability pact makes it abundantly clear that the transfer of nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia is no ‘gift’. Beyond Australia’s support for the respective UK and US submarine industrial bases, the access provided to Australia is critical to both countries’ Indo-Pacific posture.

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