The emergence of AUKUS – an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” involving Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States launched in September 2021 – has strengthened the already growing momentum toward minilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, in order to “meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.” The pact has wide-ranging goals: promoting deeper information and technology sharing; integrating security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains; and enhancing the three nations’ joint capabilities and interoperability. Although exclusive to the three Anglo partners, the grouping can offer immense value to the regional security architecture in the Indo-Pacific.
Nevertheless, in an increasingly complex multipolar world order, an insulated and restricted alliance has its limitations; a more inclusive forum within AUKUS’ minilateral setting can therefore be imperative to overcome obstacles and have a greater impact. What would an augmented AUKUS encompass? Does inclusivity necessarily imply a formal expansion, or, can the pact allow for a more abstract “Plus” network among “like-minded” Indo-Pacific partners without resorting to an expanded partnership? And what would be the scope of a potential Plus framework? Europe, as well as Indo-Pacific powers like India, Japan and South Korea can be prospective “AUKUS Plus” partners and engage in issues-based collaborations with AUKUS, such as cooperating on common issues like supply chains.
AUKUS Plus Europe: Seeds of Collaboration Amid Fallout?
The secrecy that underlaid the formation of AUKUS and the unilateral cancellation of the $90 billion Franco-Australian submarine deal severely affected the transatlantic relationship. To make matters worse, the AUKUS announcement overshadowed the launch of the European Union’s “Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” the bloc’s autonomous attempt to enhance its Indo-Pacific footprint. This unfortunate timing, which caught the EU unaware, was an embarrassing moment for Europe. It not only caused a rift between long-standing partners but also strengthened calls for greater strategic autonomy within the EU.
Yet, despite the cracks in transatlantic ties that AUKUS exposed, the United States and Europe share a long history and shared values, perceptions, and challenges; it is therefore unlikely that the rift will be permanent. Already, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has said that the pact was not “directed against NATO or Europe,” and that NATO would continue to work closely with its Indo-Pacific partners, namely New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and South Korea on cyber and maritime security, among other issues. Biden has also made efforts to reach out to Europe, especially France, to smooth ties and attempt to find new common ground to sustain transatlantic ties. In the future, cooperation between AUKUS and NATO – the bedrock for European security – cannot be ruled out, particularly as Europe faces “new challenges” from Russia and China.
AUKUS Plus Japan, India, and South Korea: Allaying Regional Security Concerns?
AUKUS’ first core initiative looks to assist Australia in building nuclear-powered submarines to bolster “interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit” without compromising nuclear non-proliferation, security, and safety commitments. Naturally, its nuclear focus has been controversial, triggering concerns in allies and rivals alike over the possibility that AUKUS will spur an arms race and lax non-proliferation standards in the Indo-Pacific.
For example, North Korea and China condemned the deal as one that would “upset the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region,” “severely [damage] regional peace… and [intensify] the arms race.” New Zealand, an Anglosphere country and Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partner of the AUKUS states, announced that it would uphold its long-standing ban on nuclear submarines entering its waters (in line with its nuclear-free policy) and deny (still hypothetical) Australian nuclear subs entry. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members like Indonesia and Malaysia, too, have expressed similar reservations. Even U.S. treaty ally Japan, while welcoming AUKUS as a “strengthening engagement in the Indo-Pacific,” has refrained from mentioning the nuclear submarine focus – indicating that it remains uncomfortable with the nuclear aspect and its potential implications. Here, engaging with regional powers through a ‘Plus’ framework can help ally regional security concerns and make AUKUS a more accepted framework in the region.
Japan, particularly, shares a security treaty with the United States and close security ties with Australia and the U.K.; it would hence be a natural addition to an AUKUS Plus forum. Japan’s ambassador to Australia, Yamagami Shingo, has already hinted that Tokyo would be willing to participate in AUKUS initiatives on AI and cybersecurity – a sentiment reiterated by former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who remains an influential entity in the ruling party.
The use of nuclear propulsion technology is a highly controversial topic in Japan, largely owing to its history with nuclear weapons and a constitutional commitment to pacifism. Hence, any cooperation between Japan and AUKUS will likely not involve the nuclear element, but rather come as ad hoc cooperation on shared issues (like critical technology development) that help strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance in face of shared challenges, particularly in the maritime domain. This could, for instance, include collaboration in efforts to patrol the East and South China Seas. As a step in this direction, Japan and Australia recently inked a landmark defense agreement that builds on the AUKUS deal.
Another major Asian power, India has neither officially welcomed nor criticized, the deal. Instead, New Delhi has maintained a wary distance while emphatically delinking the Quad – which includes Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. – from AUKUS. However, from the view point of New Delhi, AUKUS has had a direct bearing on India’s regional engagement by compromising the recently-launched France-Australia-India trilateral. Nevertheless, more from a geopolitical calculus, considering China’s recent military tactics in Ladakh, AUKUS’ focus on Chinese expansionist tendencies comes in India’s favor; it could serve to ease pressure on New Delhi and help restore strategic balance in the region.
Even so, given that AUKUS stands as an anti-China military alliance, and India’s uneasiness with treaty ties that may compromise its strategic autonomy, engagement between the two may be complicated. Nevertheless, India can build on its already strong existing ties with AUKUS states and collaborate on broader defense-related areas such as cyber and quantum technologies and AI. India and Australia are set to enhance their joint capacities and interoperability after upgrading their strategic partnership in 2020. Since the AUKUS launch, India and the United Kingdom have already taken steps to enhance interoperability, with a focus on the digital realm. Despite India’s current delinking, the potential inclusion of Japan and India into a plus network will certainly bolster the Quad-AUKUS synergy.
While South Korea, another major U.S. ally and NATO partner, has not released any official statement on AUKUS, President Moon Jae-in highlighted the pact as a contributor to regional stability and supported Australia’s decision to acquire submarines. Seoul has long sought, but not been allowed to develop, nuclear-powered submarines because of its nuclear cooperation agreement (123 Agreement) with the United States that limits applications to “peaceful uses.”
In May 2021, however, the two allies agreed to terminate the Revised Missile Guidelines, which had limited Seoul’s missile development capacity. South Korea and Australia also expanded their cooperation through a recently-inked $717 million defense contract. Post AUKUS, South Korea will look forward to, if not expect, increased defense cooperation and expanded access to nuclear technology. On the other hand, should AUKUS (and the United States particularly) continue to exclude Seoul and refuse transfer of nuclear tech, South Korea may be pushed to partner with France in developing nuclear-powered submarines.
ASEAN and Others
Undoubtedly, a large part of the disgruntlement among Asian states (especially allies) is due to the exclusive nature of the military alliance, which has the veneer of yet another imperial attempt by Anglosphere powers to decide Asia’s future without any consultations with or regard for regional states. If AUKUS intends to achieve its aim of sustaining “peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” Asian powers need to be consulted in the development of advanced capabilities. The absence of an Asian voice in an Indo-Pacific security alliance does not bode well for the “like-minded cooperation” that the United States seeks in order to rebuild its diminishing status in the region. Apart from dialogues with Japan, India, and South Korea, AUKUS will also need to focus on ASEAN and its member states, especially Indonesia, which is a direct neighbor of Australia and therefore directly impacted by Canberra’s expanding capabilities and the possibility of an arms race right in its backyard. Apart from consultations with ASEAN, AUKUS can also reinforce cooperation with other minilateral ventures in the Indo-Pacific (like the Quad), on shared goals.
Greater Impact in the Indo-Pacific?
The launch of AUKUS has been largely mired in skepticism, and as such, its expansion is not an obviously viable option. Not that the trio would easily open their exclusive club to other states: The U.S. has rebuffed any inclination to involve other countries, including Japan and India, in the AUKUS alliance. However, because of legitimate regional security concerns (and distrust of outside powers) among the nations in the region, the AUKUS mechanism needs to be reconfigured – perhaps by extension and not expansion.
Much like the still-evolving Quad Plus format, AUKUS could fulfill the needs of the Indo-Pacific region by building a broader cohesive grouping of key regional actors like India, Japan, and South Korea through forums, dialogues, and bilateral or multilateral sharing of information. These Plus partnerships could supplement AUKUS’ military focus and commitment to emergency action on pressing matters like China’s imminent takeover of Taiwan, its maritime expansion in the South China Sea, and its intimidation tactics in Hong Kong.
Further, “AUKUS Plus” can draw from the already exclusive Fives Eyes arrangement – another Anglosphere framework – which has long coordinated closely with Japan (often referred to as the Sixth Eye) and South Korea. Such ad hoc cooperation can also be developed with France, Canada, and New Zealand.
As potential for a Russia-China-North Korea alliance grows, the need for AUKUS to expand its outreach and collaboration to promote interoperability becomes crucial. A Russia-China-North Korea alliance had previously been proposed as a response to the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral; now, it could emerge as a counter to AUKUS. Against such a scenario, the pact needs to allow for synergy with existing global value-driven frameworks like Global Gateway, Build Back Better World (B3W), and existing organizations like ASEAN and NATO. Thus, even as formal inclusion of other states does not seem a possibility, coordinating and envisioning a subsidiary Plus format would allow for not only flexibility in collaboration but also greater acceptance and impact in the Indo-Pacific.