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Opinion: AUKUS pact a misbegotten scarecrow that Japan should avoid

  • May 2, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 5:00 a.m.
  • English Press

Merits of the trilateral deal are overblown

 

Masahiro Matsumura

 

Masahiro Matsumura is professor of international politics and national security at the faculty of law, St. Andrew’s University, Osaka.

 

Following the surprise announcement of the trilateral security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States called AUKUS in September last year, the Biden administration appears to have steadily reinforced its strategic shift against China.

 

The pact will deepen high-tech military cooperation among the three countries, with a major focus on assisting Australia in building a fleet of eight nuclear-powered attack submarines, supposedly an Indo-Pacific game-changer once in operation.

 

But will the pact deter China by influencing its strategic calculations? Absolutely not. Looking at the deal’s fine print, the first submarine will not even be operational for at least another ten years. Getting to three submarines needed for minimal operational requirements will take a further two years, with an entire fleet of eight submarines not expected to be in the water for up to 20 years from now, at best.

 

But the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will likely be greatest five years from now, as then-Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Philip Davidson stated in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9 last year. So how can AUKUS possibly work as an effective deterrent? It is nothing but a media statement that will have no impact on the day-to-day reality when the risk is at its highest.

 

Another supposed advantage of AUKUS is that it will strengthen the U.S. hub-and-spoke alliance networks with the Five Eyes alliance comprising the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

 

But with Auckland more reluctant to point the finger at China over human rights abuses and wanting to keep cooperation strictly limited to intelligence gathering, the Five Eyes alliance is weaker than ever, a point further highlighted by the vacuum left in the wake of America’s ungrateful exit from Afghanistan which China, Russia and Iran are now free to take advantage of.

 

Instead of strengthening its network of alliances, AUKUS rather exposes the significant decline of U.S. military hegemony, particularly in Central Asia and the greater Middle East.

 

Another supposed advantage of AUKUS is the participation of the U.K. But what difference can the Royal Navy make? With a fleet of 26 major combatant vessels, about half of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, it does not have the naval power to maintain a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific.

 

This problem is further compounded by the issue of Scottish independence because one of Britain’s three major naval bases is located in Scotland on the side of the Irish Sea from where its nuclear submarines operate.

 

But AUKUS’s most significant failing is that it does little to advance Australia’s national interests.

 

Australia has long followed a defensive naval policy, using intelligence to watch the movement of Chinese ships coming its way through the chokepoints in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, where silent diesel-electric submarines work best. Australia simply does not need noisier nuclear-powered subs in these waters.

 

Acquiring nuclear submarines will drag Australia out into the wider Pacific to integrate with the operations of the U.S. Navy. This inevitably puts Australia in an offensive stance versus China, involving significantly high political and strategic risks, especially in the event of a full-front confrontation with the country.

 

Australia has made a strategic miscalculation, most probably out of irritation over its troubled conventional sub building partnership with France that was beset by technological uncertainties and cost overruns.

 

The timing was unfortunate because the decision to abandon France’s Naval Group came at a time when public concern over Chinese interference in Australia was running high.

 

AUKUS may work as a defense-diplomatic pressure point against China and be somewhat effective in this regard, given that China traditionally takes a serious view of the demonstration of power in pursuit of a strategy that involves winning without fighting.

 

But by itself, and collectively with the U.S. and its major allies, AUKUS will hardly change the regional military balance in real terms for a decade to come when the threat posed by China will be at its highest.

 

Furthermore, the Biden administration has, through AUKUS, sharpened American policy toward China and raised the risk of a military confrontation. Not only that but AUKUS shifts some of the political and strategic risks onto Australia.

 

Tokyo needs to be wary of Washington demanding higher burden-sharing or a similar shifting of military risk onto itself. Japan must not be influenced by AUKUS and embark on the path of acquiring its own nuclear-powered submarines and nor should it join the Five Eyes network without specific needs.

 

The Australian example and the creation of AUKUS actually provide a good lesson for Japan when it comes to alliance management. Japan’s security policy has to be based strictly on the realistic and meticulous calculation of its national interests.

 

More specifically, Japan does not need nuclear-powered submarines unless it is ready to be engaged in a war with China by becoming the vanguard or rear guard of U.S. carrier battle groups.

 

In sum, the merits of the AUKUS deal are overblown. The danger for Japan is that it does not recognize this and actually decides to follow in Canberra’s footsteps.

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