Can AUKUS Prove its Critics Wrong?

As U.S. influence declines worldwide, a battleground has emerged, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, which is a crossroads of supply chains, geopolitical dynamics, and future wealth. The UK, U.S., and Australia are slowly cottoning on to this, and consequently devising new and adapting existing Indo-Pacific strategies. For example, the most recent G-7 meeting brought in India and Australia as invited guests.

For the G-7 powers, inclusivity and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) are key facets of the regional strategy; qualities that are increasingly under threat from authoritarian regimes, particularly from rising Chinese aggression towards the region. This is particularly noticeable in China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea that aims to muscle in on the territorial claims of Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

One such response to this aggression is the AUKUS security pact, announced in 2021 and involving Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. As a significant development in Indo-Pacific affairs, it is a clear military alliance in opposition to China’s pursuit of dominance in the region. However, while the announcement in 2021 was pivotal, since then, the AUKUS deal has been intensely scrutinized, by China, the EU, and internally within the member-states themselves.

Criticism of the AUKUS deal revolves around three main concerns. First, the backhanded way that the U.S., the UK, and Australia snubbed France, an important democratic partner when forming the pact. Despite the agreement being signed in 2021, there are still new revelations regarding Australian behavior, and the withholding of information when meeting with French officials in particular.

Second, the implications of indirect nuclear proliferation and arms race escalation with China that Pillar 1 of the treaty entails. This involves supplying Australia with several nuclear-powered submarines, a deal that was reached in March 2023 and that will take decades to complete. And, third, the most damaging criticism is over its limited vision as an anglosphere grouping, excluding emerging democratic states based in the Indo-Pacific theater. Individually, all three AUKUS nations have outlined clearly their intention to maintain an open, rules-based, and peaceful Indo-Pacific, but the concerns outlined above, especially on inclusivity, complicate the achievement of this vision.

Reading Between the Lines

Given these concerns, there is reason to believe that the AUKUS deal still has a long way to go. The official documents around AUKUS provide an intention to be inclusive despite not currently realizing this aim. Reaching a new, larger form of AUKUS could potentially prove critics wrong. For example, the UK’s Indo-Pacific strategy promises to empower local Indo-Pacific states to defend the rules-based order in the region. In order to achieve this empowerment, there is a specific strategy for greater inclusion which builds connections with Indo-Pacific states such as India and Japan, through shared values and also connections with other anglosphere states. Surely direct admittance of local Indo-Pacific states into AUKUS would provide the best proof that the UK is keeping its promises. Here another important element of the wider language surrounding AUKUS comes into play. AUKUS was created to counter the threat created by Chinese aggression, or in other words, the Chinese envisioned “exclusive order”. The AUKUS inclusive strategy stands in contrast to an exclusive one in which only China oversees the rules and regulations of the region.

An example of this exclusive order is the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has built economic connections in the Indo-Pacific, South and Southeast Asia and thereby heightened trade dependencies on China. This, in turn, has been used as leverage to dominate weaker economies and set rules on trade and maritime rights. Another example is the weaponization of disinformation, which has been used to undermine democracy as seen during the 2022 Presidential elections in the Philippines.

Japan has expressed its desire to join the pact, although the potential Chinese reaction as well as institutional differences mean that both parties require further adjustments. There are many examples of AUKUS unison with Japan on security matters, such as their ban on Huawei’s operations domestically. Additionally, Japan has signed a deal with Italy and the UK to co-develop a new fighter jet. Work remains to fill the gaps in convergence on technology, but if these bridges can be built, there is potential for collaboration with Japan on advanced technologies and AI, a key aspect of Pillar 2 of the pact and something the late Shinzo Abe encouraged in 2021.

Will AUKUS evolve into a genuinely inclusive Indo-Pacific alliance, rather than an exclusively anglosphere one? Its limitations, both in terms of culture and security, could hinder the UK, U.S., and Australia from building connections with the same ease that they can do with each other. Continued effort and cooperation between current members and future members are required if we are to truly see AUKUS expansion to Indo-Pacific partners.

Where Next – More Indo-Pacific or More Anglophone?

Besides Japan, there has been much speculation regarding Canada and New Zealand, who have both expressed interest in joining the pact in recent months but with no success. Their inclusion, however, would further entrench anglosphere criticisms, and make it even more inaccessible to non-Western, non-anglosphere, and culturally different states in the Indo-Pacific, essentially creating another 5 Eyes alliance.

Singapore has also openly expressed support of the pact and accepts an Australian presence in the region. Singapore, along with Malaysia, are also part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) with the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Formed in the 1970s, the FPDA has historically provided a platform not only for defense consultations and military exercises between Singapore, Malaysia and the anglosphere powers but also between Singapore and Malaysia themselves, whose defense partnership otherwise remains limited. This important link to ASEAN members, albeit infrequent and on a small scale, could also help inspire AUKUS to acquire members from the region.

The intent of AUKUS members to expand such a grouping is clear and so are the potential candidates in the Indo-Pacific. If this includes some of these Indo-Pacific states, it will weaken the anglo-centrism criticism. In an expanded and de-anglicized AUKUS, the Indo-Pacific members could play a more leading role with the UK and U.S. stepping back and supporting. The treaty could move away from its current emphasis on hard defense and submarines and focus more on technology sharing, therefore being less of an antagonizing force to other states, particularly China, and achieve greater advances in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific. Ultimately, the success of the U.S., UK and Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the AUKUS treaty itself hinges on expansion and shared leadership. Until this is achieved, the AUKUS treaty must be viewed as a work in progress.

The question that then arises is what kind of Chinese reaction can be expected from AUKUS expansion? A more inclusive, unified Indo-Pacific draws parallels with recent NATO expansion following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The Swedish and Finnish bids to join NATO have made Russia feel all the more encircled and threatened. China’s reaction to an inclusive AUKUS could be very similar and it would arguably prefer AUKUS to remain in its current anglosphere format.