As the AUKUS security pact marks its second birthday on September 15, questions continue to surround the agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Taking stock of the first two years of AUKUS and its impacts entails a wide-ranging survey of developments from the halls of power in Washington D.C., London, Canberra, and beyond.
The genesis for AUKUS happened at an inflection point in mid-2020. Before this moment, Australia had watched China’s expanding regional influence while reaping the enormous economic benefits of China’s meteoric rise. Australia’s military thinkers were planning for the rise of a hostile northern foe, but the sentiment was that time was on Australia’s side in this eventuality. This suddenly changed in mid-2020 when China began punishing Australia with trade sanctions in retaliation for Australian calls for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The political rhetoric in Australia took on an ominous tone with then Prime Minister Scott Morrison warning in July 2020 that China’s trade sanctions now had urgent military implications too, with the stage being set for a re-run of the Pacific theater of World War II. Behind the scenes, Australia began secretly forging a defense agreement with the U.K. and the U.S. When the AUKUS Agreement was revealed on September 15, 2021, in a joint press conference with Morrison, U.S. President Joe Biden, and then-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the White House press briefing described it as an agreement that “binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations.”
AUKUS immediately riled China, which felt targeted and contained by the agreement. Two years on, China’s rhetoric remains full-throated in its opposition. Despite this, Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, recently announced he will visit China later this year to mark the 50th anniversary of his predecessor Gough Whitlam’s historic visit to Beijing. This is a positive development for both sides.
It was not only China that reacted against AUKUS; friends and allies did too. France felt played by Australia, as their longstanding AU$90 billion submarine deal was jettisoned in favor of AUKUS’ signature purpose: to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. France withdrew its ambassadors from both Canberra and Washington in protest. When Australia’s government changed in May 2022, relations began to repair between the two nations, which share considerable interests in the Pacific region. France has endeavored to move beyond AUKUS. Australia’s agreement to pay AU$835 million in compensation for the broken subs contract helped heal these wounds.
The AUKUS announcement also spooked the Asia-Pacific region, with many regional leaders fearing it would trigger an arms race. Some regional governments still maintain AUKUS is inconsistent with Australia’s commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is of the highest priority for the Pacific region given its history and the ongoing legacies of nuclear weapons testing. To calm the region, the first two years of AUKUS has entailed extensive diplomatic efforts to try to allay these fears.
The security deal between China and Solomon Islands, which came to light in March 2022, six months after the AUKUS announcement, has aided these diplomatic efforts greatly. So too did Beijing’s attempt to create a China bloc throughout the Pacific region that May, with Pacific nations balking at the prospect of an arrangement reminiscent of Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Despite failing to expand on its Solomon Islands security agreement throughout the region, China nonetheless jolted nations near and far into action. In response, the United States upscaled its presence in the Pacific Islands from March 2022. This first phase of U.S. engagement culminated in the inaugural U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit at the White House in September 2022; the second summit will take place later this month.
The United States also inked a defense cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea in May of this year, but it has prompted protests. Opponents questioned the agreement’s sovereignty implications, the details of which were kept out of the public domain until the agreement was leaked. Despite the public reaction, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Port Moresby in July for related talks. The public reaction against the U.S. agreement delayed the signing of a security treaty between Australia and Papua New Guinea as questions about sovereignty and the treaty’s scope are hammered out in Port Moresby and Canberra.
Over the past two years, existing actors in the Pacific – the United States,, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and China – have upscaled their Pacific presence. At the same time, numerous new actors have entered the arena. For instance, South Korea, India, Canada, Germany, the European Union, and Saudi Arabia have all substantially increased their involvement in the region. Pacific nations have been struggling to contend with the pace and scale of this new attention. The Pacific region looks very different two years after AUKUS came into existence.
The response to AUKUS within Australia itself has also been also complicated. Widespread public debate about AUKUS has gone through numerous phases since September 2021. As in Papua New Guinea in 2023, the lack of government consultation with its constituents on momentous shifts in national security arrangements could come back to bite future Australian governments as the immense costs and implications of AUKUS become clearer.
An estimated price tag for the submarine program, which is only one part of AUKUS’ purpose to harden Australia as a target, meaning a bonanza for U.S. and U.K. defense industries, was not revealed until March of this year. This was when Albanese, Biden, and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met in San Diego to unveil additional details about how the AUKUS submarines program was going to work. The Australian government released a cost estimate of between AU$268-$368 billion over the next two decades. Given the money wasted on Australia’s previous submarine programs that went nowhere and the fluctuations of the Australian dollar, Australian taxpayers are bracing for a far bigger bill. This will have to be weighed up against the boost to employment and industry the Australian government is promising that AUKUS will deliver. Australia’s “costs versus benefits” deliberations have also covered the merits of the nation undertaking a back-to-the-future move with its “Anglosphere” defense solution.
In addition, there have been questions about the timelines for delivery of these submarines (a decade for the first Virginia-class submarines) and whether this aligns with the urgency of the threats emanating from China and, as the world was recently reminded, North Korea, which unveiled its first nuclear-armed tactical submarine this month. Critics have also argued that submarine detection technology will outpace the submarine delivery timeline, rendering the vessels obsolete before they are put into service.
Yet due to the bipartisan support for AUKUS these concerns have been set aside. So too have the anti-American voices who cluster on Australia’s political left (and have gained political influence in the Australian Labor Party), which have also been overridden by ascendant pro-AUKUS political forces. So Australians are locked into AUKUS – for now.
One of the touted strengths of AUKUS is that it is flexible and can “evolve.” This point was recently underscored by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the end of his visit to New Zealand. Blinken said the “door remains open” for New Zealand to join AUKUS, a prospect that would require considerable shifts in Wellington’s stance against nuclear propulsion and weaponry.
Yet this flexibility might also prove to be a vulnerability. Agreements that can “evolve,” as AUKUS and other recent Pacific-centered agreements have been structured, can also devolve. Despite the powerful rhetoric of ironclad bonds of friendship embedded in AUKUS, several U.S. congressmen have recently pushed back on AUKUS provisions that require legislative changes to permit sensitive information sharing and they have raised questions about the U.S. capacity to meet the timeline for delivery of the first three Virginia-class submarines to Australia while also meeting U.S. force needs. And this happening is when Australia-U.S. relations are at a peak. Combating Australian concerns about whether the United States will stay the course, which go beyond anxiety about another term in office for former U.S. President Donald Trump, has been a high priority for U.S. representatives.
AUKUS has also prompted a vigorous discussion about how to even conceive of security in today’s world, and more specifically, in the Pacific region. Pacific Islands nations have been at the forefront of arguments against security being framed in traditional terms, around geostrategic contests and the acquisition of submarines and other defense materiel. Instead, as Fiji’s now opposition leader, Inia Bakikoto Seruiratu, stressed in mid-2022 when he was the nation’s minister for defense and policing, Pacific Islanders are “fighting for our lives” – not against a foreign foe but against rising seas, cyclones, and droughts.
A recent Lowy Institute seminar in Port Moresby on Papua New Guinea security policy also reiterated that defense and security in Oceania needs to be rethought on Pacific Islands’ terms. Elias Wohengu, secretary of Papua New Guinea’s Department of Foreign Affairs, envisioned a conflation of defense, development, and economic objectives in the newly brokered defense cooperation agreement. He saw U.S. aircraft carriers transporting PNG goods around the Pacific to U.S. military bases in Hawai’i and beyond. This would augment the important role militaries are already playing in the region, such as through the U.S. ship-rider program, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief work.
Moving forward, the AUKUS grand strategy conception of security and the myriad complex, localized security threats Pacific populations face need to be brought into alignment. While AUKUS might be about deterring another epic clash of militaries, the indescribably tragic destruction of Lahaina, Hawai’i last month speaks to the challenges governments face today in keeping their populations secure from threats that go far beyond an expanding China. If securing the Pacific is the overriding objective, then implementing COP28 measures will need the same level of commitment and resources as AUKUS.