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Is AUKUS Really An ‘Alliance’? – Analysis

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By Thomas Wilkins*

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Introduction

Since the unanticipated announcement of the AUKUS initiative, comprising Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), at a summit meeting between Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his British and American counterparts in September 2021, controversy about its role and significance has continued largely unabated. The agreement now features saliently in Indo-Pacific security debates and appears to have become an instant fixture of the region’s, sometimes bewildering, array of institutional architecture.

Yet, questions remain as to its exact nature and purpose, and what it means for Australia and the Indo-Pacific. At the time of its appearance and subsequently, media commentators have portrayed AUKUS as a new ‘alliance’[2] (or ‘defence pact’).[3] Even some security analysts have employed similar terminology, describing it as “a new trilateral military and political alliance”,[4] though most have been more circumspect in their language. From this position, it was a short step to alluding AUKUS to an ‘Asian NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]’.[5]

Such estimations, if taken at face value, would have a potentially transformative effect on the Indo-Pacific security outlook. Consider how the regional security landscapes of Europe and Asia were permanently reconfigured in the aftermath of World War II by NATO and the American (‘hub-and-spoke’) bilateral alliance frameworks respectively.

However, as I argue in this paper, prima facie, these initial denominations do not stand up to closer scrutiny and somewhat overstate AUKUS’ significance using hyperbole. Thus, it is worth taking stock, half a year out from its inception, to reflect more closely on what AUKUS is or isn’t. This is not quite as simple as it might seem.

To expedite this, as an International Relations scholar and security analyst, I will make a de jure negative case followed by a more positive de facto case to determine the two different ‘faces’ presented by AUKUS. Having advanced these somewhat contrasting cases, I will contemplate the broader implications of AUKUS for Australia and the region before concluding the paper.

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The Negative Case: AUKUS is not (Technically) an ‘Alliance’

Technically speaking, AUKUS is not a de jure military alliance. ‘Alliances’, as predominantly understood by experts, are narrowly defined as a formal association of states for the use (or non-use) of military force in specified circumstances against states outside their own membership.[6] Moreover, the essential element of any genuine alliance is a treaty instrument committing the parties to mutual military aid in the event of attack by an external power. Such treaties are often, somewhat confusingly, termed ‘defence pacts’ (though not all defence pacts constitute treaty-based military alliances). Notwithstanding, AUKUS contains no such direct provision and, therefore, fails to qualify as an alliance on those grounds. The NATO treaty, with its unequivocal Article V provision for collective defence, is the benchmark in this respect.

If it is not genuinely an alliance, how should we accurately characterise the AUKUS arrangement? While some analysts have touched on this point, few have squarely addressed what the arrangement precisely represents.

First, let’s look at the literal terminology used during its announcement. In a joint press release, Morrison characterised it as an “enhanced trilateral security partnership”; UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson termed it a “new trilateral defence partnership”; and US President Joe Biden stated it as a “new phase of the trilateral security cooperation”.[7] These differing terms allow room for divergent interpretations, but nowhere do they employ the phrase ‘alliance’ (or ‘treaty’). What they clearly signal is joint intent on matters of security and defence coordination in the Indo-Pacific arena, not the formation of a trilateral treaty alliance or an ‘Asian NATO’.

Second, given that the attendant submarine deal featured so prominently in the announcement of AUKUS, is it possible that ‘defence pact’ be simply read as an ‘arms deal’? It important to note that the Anglo-American commitment to assist Australia in the development of nuclear-powered submarines is the “first major initiative” of AUKUS.[8] This is part of a broader programme of “deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains.” This signifies the creation of a wide and deep defence-technological relationship, so perhaps a ‘defence-technological pact’ may be an apt way to describe it. But arms deals do not by themselves portend alliances either, though they often appear as part of them.

These are the material facts and the exact terminology employed by the instigators of AUKUS. Under these circumstances, it simply does not constitute an ‘alliance’ in the de jure sense of the term.

The Positive Case: Is it a ‘Virtual Alliance’?

Having rejected the injudicious employment of the term ‘alliance’ by some of the commentariat above, I will now make their case for them, but based upon different grounds than a simple mischaracterisation of the AUKUS announcement.

To make a positive case that AUKUS a de facto if not de jure alliance requires a broader contextualisation of the arrangement, much of it based upon inference. This requires that we suspend narrow specialist definitions of an alliance to admit the role of perceptions and expectations, rather than rely on legal documentation.

Australia, the UK and the US are already extraordinarily close security partners. Both Australia, through ANZUS, and the UK, through joint membership of NATO, are already treaty allies of the US (but not with each other). As such, their strategic thinking, military interoperability and commitment to their American ally are already at a high level. This has been built on decades of alliance cooperation and their joint participation in conflicts ranging from World War II to the 1991 Gulf War and coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are also deeply connected through the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing agreement (along with Canada and New Zealand), further reinforcing their practical commitment and experience is their ideological alignment. The US, UK and Australia are seen as the champions of what they refer to as the ‘rules-based’ liberal world order and upholders of democracy and human rights. Thus, when Morrison speaks of a “forever partnership”, this is not an idle rhetoric.[9]

Hence, when we take these significant factors into account, the verdict of whether the AUKUS agreement might be called an ‘alliance’, more broadly speaking, potentially alters. Perhaps the terminology of ‘virtual alliance’ may be relevant. That the values and interests of the three parties are so closely aligned and built upon shared heritage and military sacrifice certainly lends the compact a strategic and ‘familial’ intimacy that many actual treaty alliances have lacked.[10] AUKUS is a new mechanism that exemplifies this pre-existing condition going forward. In such an exceptional case, with deep expectations of mutual support present, the expression of commitment through a treaty document may be rendered superfluous. There is ample precedent to make such a case; if one looks at, say the US-UK or US-Israel ‘special relationships’, there is wide consensus that these represent de facto alliances, yet they do not conform to the strict de jure criteria expressed above.

How does AUKUS fit into Australia’s Evolving Regional Alignment Posture?

Considering the Janus-like nature of AUKUS as a non-alliance or de facto ‘virtual alliance’, it is worthwhile briefly examining how the new formation fits into Australia’s strategic alignment posture in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS is representative of a broad spectrum of different forms of security alignment or security cooperation that include self-styled ‘security communities’ such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ‘strategic partnerships’ such as the Sino-Russian relationship. It must be remembered that a de jure military alliance is the ultimate security commitment between nations and one highly provocative to excluded parties. Not every alignment of security and defence interests will necessitate the promulgation of a formal alliance treaty to achieve its aims.

Following this, AUKUS as a ‘non-alliance’ form of security alignment also represents a new trend in Australian foreign policy towards ‘minilateralism’. With the Australia-US-Japan-India ‘Quad’ grouping setting a precedent, AUKUS adds to Canberra’s minilateral repertoire. These minilaterals allow for targeted security cooperation between a small number of like-minded countries based upon a confluence of shared values and interests. As in the case of AUKUS, the Quad has also been subject to mischaracterisation as an ‘alliance’ – following the same pattern – and that is why it is so crucial to examine such configurations with a closer lens.

For Australia, the newly assigned preference to minilaterals such as AUKUS and the Quad, among others, is an attempt to leverage such forums to extend its middle power reach in the absence of competitive national capabilities (and with which AUKUS will assist). Moreover, these minilaterals also serve to plug the gap between the exclusive ANZUS alliance and inclusive pan-regional security dialogue forums such as the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum in which Canberra actively participates, thus providing another ‘layer’ to regional security architecture.

Morrison has invested much in AUKUS and incurred strong criticism both domestically and regionally. In essence, the Australian government views AUKUS as a way of responding to the deteriorating security environment in the Indo-Pacific. In this view, the submarine and technology components of AUKUS, combined with the perceived expectation of enhanced Anglo-American support for Australia’s security interests, are worth the price to be paid for antagonising China and unsettling some of the country’s Southeast Asian neighbours. But aligning more closely with traditional ‘Anglosphere’ partners such as London and Washington by no means precludes cooperative ‘Asian engagement’. It must be remembered that Australia is a key member of the Quad, alongside Japan and India, and has strategic partnerships with both countries, as well as a number of other regional states.

Indeed, another minilateral – the Five Power Defence Arrangement – includes Australia, the UK and New Zealand, alongside Malaysia and Singapore. For a middle power like Australia, security must be sought through all forms of cooperation and all manner of groupings.

Conclusion

AUKUS could be characterised as a mix of ‘traditional partners’ and ‘new methods’, that is, it solidifies security relations with established ‘Anglosphere’ confederates whilst adopting a contemporary ‘non-alliance’ mechanism through which to orchestrate and implement collaboration.

Whether AUKUS constitutes a de facto ‘virtual alliance’ is an important distinction, but one that should not occlude the important point that it serves as another minilateral mechanism, alongside the Quad and others, that contribute to Australian national security strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

Whether bona fide alliances are a fading pillar of Cold War statecraft or whether existing ones are resurgent in response to rising challenges in Europe and Asia does not alter the fact that not all security arrangements must be codified as such. No new alliances have appeared since 1960. Calling AUKUS an ‘alliance’ in everyday parlance is understandable, especially in the media, but as I have argued, we need to be circumspect when blithely applying the term to every occurrence of security cooperation. This may reflect the fact that we have yet to fully embrace the complexity of the regional institutional architecture characterised by the appearance of unfamiliar minilaterals and strategic partnerships that do not conform to the dominant alliance paradigm.

*About the author: Dr Thomas Wilkins is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney, Australia. He can be contacted at [email protected]. The author bears full responsibility for the facts cited and opinions expressed in this paper.

Source: This article was published by Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS)

[1]     This article is co-published with Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute.

[2]     Matthew Cranston and Andrew Tillett, “Australia to build nuclear-powered subs, not weapons”, Financial Review, 16 September 2021, https://www.afr.com/world/north-america/aukus-alliance-brings-nuclear-subs-to-australia-20210916-p58s07

[3]     Matthew Knott and Latika Bourke, “Australia to acquire nuclear submarines as part of new AUKUS defence pact”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 September 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/australia-us-and-britain-unveil-new-aukus-defence-pact-to-counter-china-20210915-p58rzz.html

[4]     Andrey Kortunov, “Should Russia Be Worried by the New AUKUS Alliance?”, Carnegie, 29 September 2021, https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/85451

[5]     Amber Wang, “How does China really view Aukus? This military assessment may offer a clue”, South China Morning Post, 27 November 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3157563/how-does-china-really-view-aukus-military-assessment-may-offer

[6]     Glenn H Snyder, Alliance Politics (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997).

[7]     Remarks by President Biden, Prime Minister Morrison of Australia, and Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom announcing the creation of AUKUS, White House, 15 September 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/09/15/remarks-by-president-biden-prime-minister-morrison-of-australia-and-prime-minister-johnson-of-the-united-kingdom-announcing-the-creation-of-aukus/

[8]     Ibid.

[9]     Andrew Tillett, “PM hails new subs deal as ‘forever partnership’”, Financial Review, 16 September 2021, https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/pm-hails-new-subs-deal-as-forever-partnership-20210916-p58s3t

[10]     The Spectator, “Aukus alliance & Douglas on Cambridge- The Week in 60 Minutes | SpectatorTV”, YouTube Video, 24 September 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPNdgfspwEE

Institute of South Asian Studies

The Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) was established in July 2004 as an autonomous research institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS). ISAS is dedicated to research on contemporary South Asia. The Institute seeks to promote understanding of this vital region of the world, and to communicate knowledge and insights about it to policy makers, the business community, academia and civil society, in Singapore and beyond.

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