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.