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The AUKUS deal says more about US plans to take on China than Biden will admit

Grant Golub, Defense Priorities   

The AUKUS deal says more about US plans to take on China than Biden will admit
  • President Joe Biden is heading to the G-20 summit this month to mend rifts caused by the AUKUS security pact.
  • The pact makes explicit US plans to aggressively challenge China, but in doing so, it risks further damaging core relationships.

As President Joe Biden prepares to attend the G-20 summit in Rome at the end of this month, his recent decision to sign a new security agreement with Australia and Britain looms large.

After this deal enraged France and caused a major diplomatic rift between Paris and Washington, the conference will be the president's first in-person opportunity to mend fresh wounds.

Not only will Biden work to fix relations with French President Emmanuel Macron on the meeting's sidelines, but he'll aim to reassure his European counterparts on the US commitment to them as the contours of his China policy came into sharper focus.

The president's approach, one characterized by competition and rivalry, will have profound implications for US grand strategy in the years to come.

In September, Biden jointly announced with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain the formation of a trilateral security pact.

Under the AUKUS agreement, London and Washington will help Canberra develop nuclear-powered submarines and increase technological cooperation across a range of domains, including artificial intelligence and cyber capabilities. Australia will also explore hosting US bombers on its territory.

Yet while the AUKUS deal is a huge step by itself in its attempts to help Washington complete its Asia pivot and bolster its regional security position, its potential broader implications are even more striking. This is true not just for Sino-American relations, but also for the broader shape of American foreign policy.

The core of the AUKUS pact is the Anglo-American commitment to provide Australia with nuclear propulsion technology to power a new fleet of submarines.

Nuclear power allows submarines to have limitless range, travel largely undetected, and is so superior to conventional fuel that Australia and the United States gambled the deal was worth enraging France, which had a previous contract to provide Australia with diesel-powered submarines.

However, this nuclear technology is one of America's most closely guarded secrets. Although the US has nuclear sharing agreements with key allies regarding the use of nuclear weapons, it barely exchanges nuclear materials or knowledge like this with any other nation.

The United States last shared nuclear propulsion technology with an ally in 1958 under a major defense agreement with Britain after years of British political wrangling and the Soviet Union's successful launching of Sputnik. It took a massive crisis to convince American officials to relent on sharing this sensitive information, even with its closest ally.

Since the end of World War II, nuclear nonproliferation has been a cornerstone of American grand strategy and foreign policy. Naturally, US officials have believed that if nuclear weapons spread and a greater number of states possessed them, there would be heightened risks of the United States being vulnerable to attack.

Additionally, American policymakers have also been historically apprehensive about allies having independent nuclear arsenals or holding key nuclear information. If they did, the thinking went, they could possibly pull the US into conflicts it did not want to be involved in or operate more autonomously from Washington.

At the AUKUS deal announcement, the Australian prime minister made clear his nation was not seeking to build its own nuclear deterrent or acquire nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, for the Biden administration to cast aside Washington's historical commitments to nuclear nonproliferation means it views the China challenge and regional security in the Pacific as more pressing concerns.

In other words, providing Australia with nuclear-powered submarines is a breach of a mainstay of American foreign policy for over the last seven decades. It's possible Washington could make similar decisions with other regional allies, like Japan or South Korea in the future, a worrying development.

At the same time, the AUKUS pact raises serious questions about the future relationship between the United States and most of its European allies.

While Australia, Britain, and the United States were negotiating this agreement, they decided to keep Paris in the dark since it involved cancelling France's previous submarine deal with Canberra.

French President Emmanuel Macron was so infuriated with what he viewed as deception that he recalled France's ambassadors to both Australia and the United States, escalating the diplomatic rift created by the deal. The result was a blowup that has barely begun to heal and could further strain America's fracturing relations with some of its closest allies.

The AUKUS announcement has exposed the continuing fissures in the Atlantic alliance.

Combined with the apparent lack of consultation over the US exit from Afghanistan, it demonstrates there is more continuity between the Biden administration and its predecessor on the role of Europe in American foreign policy than Biden officials would likely care to publicly admit.

Rightfully, it amplifies questions about how Washington views its European allies as it continues to pivot toward Asia and reorient US national security policy toward confronting Beijing.

The AUKUS deal is about more than its details. In joining this pact, Washington has made it explicit it plans to aggressively challenge China in both rhetoric and policy. But in doing so, it risks further damaging core relationships with traditional partners and setting off a chain reaction that could spiral out of control.

As the Biden administration plans its next moves in the delicate dance with Beijing, it should seriously rethink whether a hawkish US posture in the Pacific is ultimately worth the costs.

Grant Golub is a Ph.D. candidate studying US diplomatic history and grand strategy in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research focuses on the politics of American grand strategy during World War II. He is also a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society in Washington, DC, and a project assistant for the Cold War Studies Project at LSE IDEAS, a university think tank. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Responsible Statecraft, and other leading publications. He tweets at @ghgolub.


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