Nuclear Tension in the South China Sea

Australia’s course change on relations with China: toward an American/British new order.

On Sept. 15, U.S. President Joe Biden announced at the White House that America, Britain and Australia will create a new security cooperation framework in the Indo-Pacific region, called AUKUS. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also participated online in the announcement. With a view to countering China, the United States and Britain will support Australia’s possession of nuclear submarine capabilities.

AUKUS is a combination of the country names of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. In a press release, Biden stressed that the three nations are time-honored allies who have fought together since World War I. He stressed that the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia “will update and enhance our shared ability to take on the threats of the 21st century just as we did in the 20th century: together.” They will also strengthen cooperation in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum and other cutting-edge technologies, as well as industrial infrastructure and supply chains.

AUKUS is characterized by a more military-oriented nature than other frameworks, such as the Quad alliance of Japan, the United States, Australia and India. As a first initiative, the United States and the United Kingdom will provide nuclear submarine technology. Nuclear submarine technology is top secret, and the United States has only provided it to the United Kingdom thus far. Nuclear submarines are stealthy and capable of long ranges submerged. If Australia possesses nuclear submarines, it will be a threat to China. Over the next 18 months, a team formed by the three countries will be responsible for developing the plan.

However, the possession of nuclear submarines by Australia, which is not a nuclear weapons state, may cause controversy with respect to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. “Australia has no plans to acquire nuclear weapons and this proposal will remain consistent with Australia’s longstanding commitment to nuclear non-proliferation,” Morrison said. Biden also said, “We’re not talking about nuclear-armed submarines. These are conventionally armed submarines that are powered by nuclear reactors. This technology is proven. It’s safe.”

Will the Influence of AUKUS Inevitably Be Opposed by China?

The United States, United Kingdom and Australia have launched a new security cooperation framework, AUKUS. By strengthening cooperation, including Australia’s possession of nuclear submarine capabilities, the countries aim to strengthen deterrence against China, which has been increasingly active in the South China Sea and around Taiwan. It could also affect the power balance of the Indo-Pacific region, where the United States and China are in conflict.

“We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve. Because the future of each of our nations — and indeed the world — depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific,” President Biden emphasized in the press conference on Sept. 15.

The basic philosophy of AUKUS is to emphasize a rules-based international order. The three countries avoided direct names, but it is clear that this was created with opposition to China in mind. The Biden administration has created frameworks such as the Quad alliance with Japan, the United States, Australia and India, with cooperation of allies and friendly countries at the heart of its strategy toward China, but the United States, United Kingdom and Australia are also especially linked militarily.

Jeffrey Hornung, a research fellow at the RAND Corporation, who specializes in East Asian security issues, said, “The United Kingdom and Australia are top-level allies of the United States.”* The three countries are members of the Five Eyes (the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand), an alliance of intelligence agencies. “They can share defense equipment and intelligence with each other, and since we have actual combat experience, we can deepen our interoperability in combat,”* he said.

AUKUS will focus on cooperation with Australia on its nuclear submarine capability. Australia originally wanted to introduce a new high-performance submarine, and Japan proposed the Soryu submarine. However, in 2016, the decision had been made to build French design diesel submarines.

The nuclear submarines that the United States and the United Kingdom will license to Australia in the future have excellent stealth capacity and have a submarine capability that is said to be almost permanent. It will also be possible for them to navigate to the South China Sea and Taiwan, and they can be expected to play a role as a deterrent to China, which is intensifying its activities in the surrounding area.

Relations between Australia and China deteriorated when China imposed high tariffs on Australian imports in response to Australia’s call for an international investigation into the origin of COVID-19. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and Australia’s participation in AUKUS indicates that it has decided to cooperate with the United States’ strategy toward China.

On the other hand, the fact that the United Kingdom is a member of AUKUS is also a significant feature. The United Kingdom has been trying to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific region with its “Global Britain” concept, including the dispatch of its state-of-the-art aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth. France and Germany have also recently dispatched ships to the region. In a press release, Biden said, “France, in particular, already has a substantial Indo-Pacific presence and is a key partner and ally in strengthening the security and prosperity of the region.” There is a possibility that more European ships will enter the region in the future.

Meanwhile, Zhao Lijian, deputy press secretary of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a regular press conference on Sept. 16, “It will seriously destroy regional peace and stability. It will accelerate the arms race and harm efforts for nuclear non-proliferation.” A Chinese government-affiliated think tank researcher pointed out, “China is wary of the United States’ move to create an Asian version of NATO, as well as the Quad, which would bring China closer to Russia.” There are also fears that tensions between the United States and China in the South China Sea and around Taiwan, where China is building a military base, could rise further.

*Editor’s note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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