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September 21, 2021


Much of the furore is linked to submarines. France was due to supply Australia with a fleet of conventional submarines – at an immense cost

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AUKUS: Things Go Nuclear in the Pacific

AUKUS: Things Go Nuclear in the Pacific

France is annoyed but China is the real focus of the new Australia/UK/US defence pact

A defence pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (‘AUKUS’) should be a reasonable enough idea – the nations are linked by language and history, they have fought alongside each in most recent major international conflicts since World War II (although the UK did skip Vietnam) and they are part of the so-called 5 Eyes international intelligence sharing group, along with Canada and New Zealand. So why is France so upset that it has re-called its Ambassadors to Canberra and Washington? (Re-call is one diplomatic step below completely withdrawing the Ambassador and, effectively, ceasing direct diplomatic relations.)

French Submarine Deal Sunk

Much of the furore is linked to submarines. France was due to supply Australia with a fleet of conventional submarines – at an immense cost, A$50 billion (roughly US$36.6 billion or 3 1/2 trillion Kenyan shillings). That deal has now been ripped up and the Australians are now going to buy 8 US nuclear powered submarines (although not nuclear armed, it should be noted).

French politicians have not been shy of complaining of ‘a knife in the back’ from their UK and US partners, and as a result some are even questioning the future of the NATO alliance. The loss of such a huge defence contract is a undoubtedly a major blow to the French arms industry.

But France is not the only nation to be annoyed by the AUKUS treaty. China, it appears, is the real focus of the new pact, and it has already expressed its disapproval in no uncertain terms.

China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, but this is a relationship that has been becoming more and more fraught. China has sought to influence Australia’s universities (which are popular with Chinese students) to suppress any voices that question China’s human rights record, its environmental policies or its general, aggressive stance in all things economic and diplomatic. It has also imposed sanctions after Canberra called for an international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus, which many believe to have come from Wuhan province: China vigorously denies the accusation, offering instead a myriad of conspiracy theories including that it is an American bio-weapon. Australia wants to diversify its trade away from China but needs to be able to protect itself as it does so. Britain is trying to pivot to being a global, not a European player and China is regularly portrayed by American politicians and generals as the greatest threat to the US.

The AUKUS does not just suit its members, though: India and Japan, the two other large economies in the Pacific, have welcomed the move, with India even suggesting that AUKUS should merge with an existing pact between Australia, India, Japan and the US (‘the Quad’) to create an even stronger bulwark against Chinese aggression. Other smaller players in the Pacific rim probably welcome the move too but cannot say that.

China’s response could take many forms, be it further sanctions, more aggressive rhetoric, increased use of international industrial espionage and a range of cyber attacks. Perhaps China might even flex its admittedly significant military might in some way, although it traditionally stops short of full blown military action. What can be expected is that other nations laying in or around the Pacific and the Indian Ocean – like Kenya – might soon find themselves being forced to pick a side in a new kind of Cold War.


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