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Sarah Ingham: How AUKUS is Helping Western Democracies Square Up to China in the Pacific

Superpower rivalry in the Pacific Ocean is nothing new.  In early 1788, two French ships under the command of explorer and navigator Jean-Francois Galaup, Comte de la Perouse, prepared to sail into Botany Bay on the east coast of what until recently had been, for Europeans at least, the mythical terra australis.

As the French vessels entered the bay on 26 January, the 11 British ships of the First Fleet were preparing to sail a few miles north to Port Jackson, Sydney cove. Once there, the  commander, Arthur Phillip wasted no time: he raised the Union Jack and claimed the land in the name of the King, George III.

The Age of Sail brought astonishing feats of seamanship and navigation across the Pacific.

Commissioned by Louis XVI, La Perouse was following the charts drawn up by Captain James Cook, who had mapped the coastlines of New Zealand and Eastern Australian. On its three-year voyage of scientific discovery and exploration, his ship Endeavour had dropped anchor in Botany Bay in 1770.

Vital global arteries for trade, the world’s sea lanes were routes to national wealth. Throughout the 18th Century until Waterloo in 1815, Britain and France were repeatedly at war, battling for dominance of the seas across the northern hemisphere. Both Phillip and La Perouse were veterans of Anglo-French naval battles.

The Indo-Pacific region is gradually becoming “the economic engine-room of the world”, reports a recent government update on AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the United States which was agreed in September 2021.

AUKUS’s first initiative is a collaboration on a new fleet of nuclear-powered SSN submarines for the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy.

Last month, initial contracts worth £4bn for the British boats were awarded to UK contractors BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, and Babcock. Construction will take place in Barrow-in-Furness, with the subs coming into service in the late 2030s. They will be “the largest, most advanced and most powerful attack submarines ever operated by the Royal Navy.”

The Australian SSNs are set to be built near Adelaide. Just as in Britain, thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars to boost local economies are promised.

But some Aussie voters still need to be convinced about the subs, set to cost local taxpayers A$368 billion.

A ruckus over AUKUS threatened to capsize the ruling Labor Party conference in August. The current coalition inherited the pact from the previous Liberal government. Some members were troubled about the nuclear aspect of the nuclear-powered SSNs; others thought the money is better spent on healthcare, education, and infrastructure.

Although a few delegates indeed got “raucous over AUKUS”, they caused barely a Conference ripple for Anthony Albanese, the prime minister, and the row allowed Labour to look tough on defence.

Yet doubts linger about the project. Canberra is set to take delivery of three Virginia-class SSNs from the US because the Australian-built subs are not expected to be in service until the early 2040s; Rolls-Royce are supplying the nuclear reactors for both the UK and Australian-built boats; much of the technology will be American.

The UK has operated nuclear-powered submarines for 60 years. It is therefore a leap to empathise with the fiercely-held views about a switch to nuclear propulsion by Australia, a signatory to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, aka the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga). (AUKUS-related papers and press releases from the Ministry of Defence in London stress the Aussie subs will be conventionally-armed.)

The SSNs are the first initiative of the AUKUS agreement: Pillar 2 will seek closer integration between the three nations across eight areas of defence and security, including AI and hypersonic missiles.

AUKUS represents Britain’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, outlined in the 2021 Integrated ReviewGlobal Britain in a Competitive Age. Dismissed as a piece of typical Boris boosterism – “overpromises and under-delivers” stated Baroness Anelay to Chatham House – critics should remember that as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Britain’s strategy should be global.

The pact allows some burden-sharing among close allies. In May, the IR Refresh highlighted strengthening both the UK’s international partnerships and domestic resilience “partly in response to the epoch-defining and systemic challenge posed by China.” Pints at the Plough with Xi Jinping are now the stuff of history.

Possessed of the world’s numerically largest navy with more than 340 warships, China currently lacks tonnage and firepower compared to the US Navy.

But last week, a Chinese destroyer’s sonar caused minor injuries to a diver from HMAS Twowoomba while the vessels were in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Albanese said: “This was dangerous, it was unsafe and it was unprofessional from the Chinese warship.”

There have been similar small skirmishes in recent years: separately each can be written off as misfortune, cumulatively they are surely more than carelessness.

Last year, a security pact between China and the Solomon Islands raised fears in Canberra that Beijing plans to build a naval base on the remote archipelago. Is the Pacific, described by President Eisenhower as an “American lake”, set to become a Chinese lagoon? Tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea seem also unlikely to disappear.

The AUKUS compact caused Australia a temporary rift with France, which had been set to supply Australia with conventionally-powered submarines. A bilateral statement earlier this year however, emphasised the importance of a strong Franco-Australian partnership to maintain an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Just days ago Taro Aso, the former prime minister of Japan, suggested that his country should join AUKUS.

HMAS Canberraa landing helicopter dock, remains in her home port of Fleet Base East in Sydney Harbour, having spent three months on exercises across the Pacific with allied navies. The leaden skies here mirror her battleship grey paint.

From the United Kingdom perspective, the Pacific seems remote, doubly so with conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza far closer to home. But in this interdependent world of international supply chains and cyber space, our defence and security demands good allies across the globe.

Source : Conservative Home