AUKUS Deal: The Origin of Thucydides Trap

On September 15, 2021, The United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Australia forged a historic tripartite military pact called AUKUS, designed to enhance Australia’s military capabilities. According to the treaty, the USA and UK will help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Fostering collective security and developing trilateral relations between the USA, UK and AU  is only the tip of the iceberg. According to some influential scholars of international relations, the pact first and foremost, aims to deter and contain China. The aforementioned states acknowledge Beijing’s ever-growing appetite and try to effectively counter conventional and unconventional threats before it gets too big to cope with. What are the terms of the treaty? What are the pros and cons of the pact? How do these states discern the Chinese threat? In what direction is the balance of power shifting in Eastern Asia? In this article, I will try to answer those questions.

Everything we must know about the AUKUS deal – Roughly said, the AUKUS deal contains three main components: 1. Acquisition of Nuclear-powered naval fleet; 2. Develop long-range missiles; 3. Share pertinent information in spheres of cyber technology and artificial intelligence. According to the terms of the agreement, the United States of America and the United Kingdom will provide Australians with nuclear propulsion technology, and Australia will purchase highly enriched Uranium from the USA.  There are only six countries with nuclear-powered fleets at present. Five (USA, UK, China, Russia, and France) are permanent members of the UN’s security council, plus India. This fact clearly emphasizes the very necessity of Australia for the future of  Anglo-Saxon unity. In addition, the pact guarantees Australia’s right to expand the arsenal of its long-range guided missiles. Canberra will receive Tomahawk and AGM-158 air-to-surface missiles from Washington. The final component of the agreement includes cooperation in cyber technology and artificial intelligence that will facilitate AUKUS members in enhancing their technological compatibility. To join the military pact, Canberra should have severed ties with France. Australia repudiated the 56 € billion submarine contract with France, which left Paris infuriated. The foreign minister of France, Jean-Yves le Drian, stated it was a stab in the back from allies. In the following days, France recalled ambassadors from the United States of America and Australia as the measure of retaliation. France has been a staunch ally of the United States for a long time, so why did Washington venture to exacerbate relations with Paris? I will try to point out the main interests of each AUKUS member.

The perspective of the United States of America: For the USA, AUKUS is the tool in deterring China’s rising influence in Eastern Asia. In the last 20-30 years, Beijing’s economic growth was incomparable. The transition from centralized to the free market economy has enabled the country to become attractive to Foreign Direct Investments. Today China has the second-largest economy (with a staggering 14.7 trillion $) after the USA (20.9 trillion $). However, influential economists surmise that China would surpass the US by the end of the decade. China has also exerted military and political influence on the region. Militarization of South China Sea islands, territorial disputes with almost all neighbors, and the attempts of fully subjugating Hong Kong and Taiwan autonomies underline China’s desire to become the regional hegemon. The USA has supremacy over China in military capabilities, however, analysts announce that Beijing will fill this gap next 20-30 years. The People’s Republic of China also has tremendous progress in high technologies with analysts warning it might emulate the United States of America in the next decade. Taking into consideration the aforementioned factors, it is salient that the comparative power of PCR will only strengthen in the future. Washington admits this reality and wants to slow down Beijing’s advancement. The only mechanism of eschewing China’s rise is to create and strengthen the anti-Chinese military, economic and diplomatic coalitions. With QUAD (quadrilateral security dialogue between USA, Japan, India, and Australia), Five Eyes (Intelligence alliance between USA, UK, Australia, Canada,  and New Zealand), and now AUKUS, the United States of America has a better chance to control the pace of China’s growth and counter the projection of its military and soft power. Consequently, with these anti-Chinese alliances, Washington procrastinates to form Thucydides Trap.

The perspective of Australia: For Australia, AUKUS has existential importance. China’s ascending influence is perceived as a threat to neighboring countries. That creates the so-called “security dilemma” situation where countries feel inferior about their security and try to intensify their military capabilities. To preserve their independence and territorial integrity, states must make a complex decision: 1. To counterbalance rising threat; 2. To bandwagon – make concessions to the aggressor. Australia chose the first option, counterbalancing Beijing by joining the anti-Chinese Coalition. Counterbalance is more efficient at the incipient stage when the perceived adversary has not gathered its full strength yet. For more than two decades, official Canberra had a neutral foreign policy, which implied good economic relations with both: USA and China. China is the number one trading partner (13% of total two-way trade) for Australia. However, when China’s rise became overwhelming, Australia fully changed its security policy. With a nuclear-powered fleet, Canberra has a better opportunity to curb China’s insatiable appetite.

The perspective of the United Kingdom: For the UK, AUKUS is the opportunity to deepen strategic cooperation with crucial partners: the USA and Especially Australia. The relations between the UK and AU exist in the framework of the Commonwealth of Nations, which is a voluntary association of 54 countries, consisting of former territories of the British Empire. In all those countries, the head of the state is queen Elisabeth II. However, most commonwealth countries declared their desire to terminate their membership in this organization when the monarch of the UK dies. In this scenario, Britain’s fading influence over commonwealth space will finally wax and wane. To avoid this, the UK needs to maintain warm relations with Australia, the second biggest (after Canada) former British colony. Furthermore, AUKUS means the opportunity of reinforcing so-called “special relations” between the United States and Great Britain.

To encapsulate the summary into a few lines, we can say that the creation of AUKUS is the defining moment of today’s international politics because of three main reasons: 1. China is rising, and the USA is aware of this process; 2. The USA is trying to contain Beijing by forming and strengthening anti-Chinese coalitions in East Asia; 3. That is the origin of the Thucydides Trap, descending hegemony of the United States and ascending power of China.

Giga Jokhadze

Research fellow

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