Bruce Jones is a senior fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Brookings Institution, and the author of the “To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers” (Scribner, 2021).
President Joe Biden’s announcement last week of an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” with Australia and the United Kingdom is arguably the most significant strategic U.S. move in Asia in a generation. It’s also the latest turn in an absorbing reality of our time: an ongoing and escalating global naval arms race.
For the previous two months, the world media and foreign policy communities were gripped by the last act of the long American war in Afghanistan. Quite apart from the national and human tragedies unfolding in Central Asia, commentators depicted the U.S. withdrawal as the dying act of a fading power: incompetent in execution, redolent of isolationism and a betrayal of allies. The “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K. was reliably reported to be dead, along with America’s credibility with her allies.
That helps explain the sense of surprise when news began to leak that Biden had been working in absolute secrecy for months with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the most important new defense partnership arrangement since the end of the Cold War. The Australia-U.K.-U.S. agreement (or “AUKUS”) launched three members of the Five Eyes into a sustained, multi-decade defense production arrangement that encompasses several of the most critical military technologies of our time. It is a serious bid to contain and confront the growing naval challenge from China. There’s been a decade-long bipartisan agreement about the need to “pivot to Asia,” but more rhetoric than action; AUKUS represents a decisive shift towards operationalization.
The agreement incorporates the crown jewel of U.S. advanced military technology: nuclear propulsion for submarines. Only once before had the U.S. agreed to share this most sensitive and complex technology (in the late 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, with the U.K.) But the agreement is also designed to foster deeper integration of supply chains, defense industrial bases and leading-edge technologies: quantum computing, artificial intelligence and “undersea domains,” a reference both to undersea cables (which carry nearly all the world’s data and are vulnerable to disruption) and to anti-submarine detection. In a parallel bilateral agreement that got less attention, the U.S. agreed to Australia’s proposal that they should cooperate on hypersonic missiles and acquire several other long-range strike systems, including Tomahawks (also a closely guarded U.S. military technology).
The naval and technological components of the agreement are tightly interlinked. Modern naval warfare is not about ship-to-ship combat, or even naval patrolling. It is inextricably enmeshed in the global network of ships, satellites and land-based stations for radar, communications and missile-targeting systems, powered by some of the world’s most advanced software. The Chinese call this “informatized warfare,” while the U.S. armed services call it “systems warfare” — which conveys something of the scale, reach and importance of the naval theater to contemporary geopolitical rivalry. Quantum technologies may become critical for the security of those systems.
The naval and information technology domains, both together and separately, are the real front line in the mounting competition with China. In geographical terms, that line stretches across the vast waters of the western Pacific (encompassing such near-to-China bodies of water as the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, the Philippines Sea and, critically, the Taiwan Strait) and the eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean. This “Indo-Pacific” terrain is to the new global naval arms race what Eastern Europe was to the Cold War: both the front lines of the rivalry and the most likely locale for an outbreak of active hostilities. There are huge stakes here: around 90% of all global trade moves by sea, as does roughly 60% of the world’s oil and gas. The connected Malacca and Singapore Straits are the world’s most vital commercial and energy chokepoints.
Which helps explain why we are in a naval arms race at all. China is the world’s largest source of sea-based trade, which its economic growth has long been dependent on. It is hugely vulnerable to being choked off by the U.S. Navy, which, with its Asian allies, has controlled the Pacific’s critical waterways since the end of World War II. That vulnerability was a key factor in China’s recent expansion and modernization of its navy (the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN), which in the space of two short decades has gone from being a minor player in global naval terms to the most powerful in Asia, second only to the U.S. worldwide. The coast guard and merchant marine extends China’s reach even further. And they’ve made giant leaps in anti-ship missile technology, surpassing the U.S. in a critical area of naval warfare. China is also frantically investing in the cognate technologies: space-based communications, high-end computing and software, undersea detection and anti-submarine warfare.
All of this directly threatens Taiwan and challenges America’s longstanding naval dominance in Asia, perhaps eventually globally. America’s control of the sea has been central to its conception of its own global standing since the end of World War II. And it’s vital for Washington’s capacity to project hard power anywhere in the world, as well as to more benign missions like protecting trade and guaranteeing the free flow of energy across the high seas. You might think China and the U.S. share an interest in keeping the sea secure, but such is the reality of great power politics that any potential comity of this type has been rapidly eroded by a spiral of distrust over the Chinese naval buildup, the threat that poses to Taiwan and the broader deterioration in the relationship over issues like Hong Kong, human rights, intellectual-property theft and bilateral trade. What’s more, China has increasingly used its position of strength in Asia to pressure neighbors and near-neighbors like Australia, often in quite forceful terms. And China’s future intentions, though unknowable, are by all signs worrying.
Against the mounting China naval challenge, America’s vital edge is not its aircraft carriers, nor its guided-missile destroyers, nor even its advanced radar systems. It’s the nuclear submarine fleet. Able to patrol for months at a time without surfacing, the submarine fleet gives the U.S. an ability to sustain its presence in Asian waters that can’t be matched by surface ships. Nuclear submarines are also extremely quiet — very hard to detect. China’s rapidly improving satellite and radar systems are increasingly able to detect and deter America’s surface fleet, but not its nuclear submarines.
Faced with a navy emerging as a near-rival (at least in the Indo-Pacific region), the U.S. had three choices: cede the terrain with the near-certain result of amplifying China’s ability to pressure its East Asian neighbors into economic and diplomatic arrangements in China’s interest (and not America’s); confront China’s navy by embarking on an extensive naval build up; or deepen maritime alliances in the region and around the world to share the burden of confrontation.
In a recent study of global maritime competition, I concluded that the right posture was to embark on a new naval and computational alliance, building on but not limited to its existing partnerships, like the Quad. Ultimately, if China’s reach and ambition continues to grow, the U.S. is likely to look toward forging a wider alliance of alliances that link the maritime and technological assets of the Quad and NATO. Some of this is already underway, for example a 2019 agreement between Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. for enhanced naval coordination.
The best way to understand AUKUS is as a major new step in that direction. However, it was a step with a stumble: France was furious at being cut out of the arrangement.
Shortly before the arrangement with the U.K. and the U.S. was announced, Australia canceled a huge submarine deal with France that had been underway for several years. The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, had called it the “deal of a century”: A 10-year, €50 billion agreement for high-quality diesel submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, with dozens of Australian engineers relocating to France to work with France’s state-owned Naval Group.
Le Drian called AUKUS “a stab in the back,” and said Biden was behaving like Donald Trump. President Emmanuel Macron recalled the French ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, a rare and dramatic diplomatic slap. (In a supremely Gallic snub, the ambassador to London remained there, an insinuation that the U.K. was merely acting as America’s bag-carrier and did not rise to the level of the insult.)
To many, France’s reaction seemed over the top. France has signed defense production arrangements without informing other European allies (including one to sell destroyers to Russia) numerous times in the past. The outrage seemed to be more about defense contracts than any principle of allied consultation.
To be fair to Paris, the submarine deal was a vital contract for an entire system of defense technology firms, and canceling it is a major blow to French industry and the science sector. It also dealt a serious blow to Macron’s signature foreign policy effort to solidify France’s presence and influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
But Australia had important reasons to make the switch. There were sustained delivery issues on the Australia-France contract. But more important, ever since that contract was signed (in 2016), the rapid pace of Chinese naval developments had altered the playing field. Back then, acquiring diesel submarines seemed not only likely to be Australia’s only option, but also an option equal to the task. Not anymore. Canberra was worried that it would end up with a fleet of expensive submarines not up to the challenge.
What’s most important now is China’s next actions. The initial diplomatic reaction was unsurprisingly one of fury. Beijing already sees America’s Indo-Pacific presence as an encirclement. China recently deployed four new nuclear-powered submarines, bringing its total to 15. It’s stated ambitions are to expand its capacity out to “the far seas” — including the wider reaches of the Pacific, the Arctic and the Indian Oceans. Tighter collaboration among America’s allies in Asia is a serious obstacle.
Already, China must contend with a Taiwanese navy actively equipped and supported by the U.S., a powerful Japanese navy and an Indian navy with extensive plans for expansion and an enviable set of basing and partnership arrangements across the breadth of the Indian Ocean. The AUKUS deal will add a hefty degree of solidity to the naval wall that limits PLAN ambition beyond its bordering waters. At the very least, it will mean that the U.S. plus core allies keep pace with China’s rapid naval expansion.
There are risks here, of course. Australia wants to acquire the technological capacity to build at least part of the boats itself, rather than simply buying U.S. Virginia class subs or the U.K. equivalent, which will delay the point when Canberra can actually deploy the new boats until roughly 2036. That’s a wide window during which China can further build up its naval capacity and increase pressure on Australia without Australia having any new capacity to push back.
Against that, though, the U.S. gains a more powerful ally in the region and additional options in its effort to contain China’s naval reach, even before Canberra acquires a single boat. The agreement will likely be complemented by joint U.S.-Australian patrols, possibly new basing agreements for the U.S. Navy in Australia and much faster progress on issues like the Tomahawk missiles.
There are still many details to be ironed out over the next 18 months, like how to foster collaboration among university labs and the private sector, which has the lead in many key technologies like quantum computing. Work on mapping out supply chain options in critical technologies is underway, but many implementation steps will have to be established, and some legislated. Things can go wrong or be delayed.
But for now, the significance of the deal is that it centers Western attention on the present fact of a global naval arms race; adds to Western deterrence of China without more provocative measures; and kickstarts what is likely to emerge as a deep partnership on the world’s most critical advanced military technologies, from quantum computing to undersea monitoring. The decision to launch a process leading to a shared defense, science and industrial base will also help protect the deal against the warps and woofs of domestic politics in the three capitals.
Biden’s long game is to find a mechanism — or more likely, a series of mechanisms — to link America’s Asian and European allies in a bid to counter and contain China. Despite the fracas with France (which the U.S. should endeavor quickly to overcome), the launch of AUKUS is a vital next step in that direction.