The Indo-Pacific region is under enormous pressure, with tensions steadily rising. China’s open aggression towards Taiwan and its frequent intrusions into the Indian territory in violation of border security agreements are quickly threatening to become potential flashpoints for a new series of conflicts. But even without the threat of conflict, China’s global and regional dominance is setting off a new era of a Cold War. The development would pit China against the pre-eminent superpower of the era, the United States.
It was on the back of such a tense political scenario that the United Kingdom, the US and Australia announced their new nuclear submarine deal on September 15. The move would see Australia transformed into a major geopolitical partner for the US and a significant regional military power to combat the growing Chinese dominance of the region.
Australia, with its order of eight nuclear-powered submarines, would become a part of a select cadre of nations that have the capability of producing such war machines, despite the lack of a civilian nuclear base. The US, Russia, UK, France, China and India are all currently capable of making and deploying nuclear submarines in the world.
But the deal has not been without its hurdles. France, the European Union and China had come out to criticise the deal for different reasons. Analysts and political theorists also warned against the start of a nuclear arms race in the region.
France had signed a deal with Australia for providing them with nuclear submarines but the French deal was scuttled in favour of the new agreement. China, on the other hand, has accused the three countries of "severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts."
Michael Shoebridge, Director of Defence and National Security at ASPI, was quoted as saying by CNBC, “There has been enormous change in the region’s strategic environment in just five years. Back in 2016, the Australian government did not see the need to deal with the sensitivity of nuclear submarines, let alone their complexity and expense.”
Shoebridge also said the UK and US would not have shared this technology back then. “China's actions since that time under Xi Jinping have changed the environment fundamentally and made nuclear submarines a very sensible choice for Australia.”
But the other significant issue with the deal is the timeframe. The deal for now only exists on paper, details such as where the submarines will be built and the particular class of the submarines still haven’t been inked out.
In any case, the submarines will not be deployed before 2040, compared to the 2034 date that France had set for its delivery of submarines. In the intervening period, China is only expected to increase its military spending in the area in order to contest the military balance of power in the region.
Whether AUKUS can work with regional powers like Singapore, South Korea, Japan; and other strategic allies like France, India and others, will be key to deciding the effectiveness of the new “alliance” in reining in the dragon.
But for many countries in the region, their priorities remain in keeping sea channels in the region open while not being embroiled in an arms race between the two superpowers of this era in a new Cold War.
Also read: Australia, UK, US announce security partnership; experts decode its impact on Indo-Pacific region
(Edited by : Shoma Bhattacharjee)