The three-way pact between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom is the biggest defense project in Australian history. Yet, Australian defense spending will barely rise at all.
U.S. President Joe Biden, happy to pick up the tab, seems confident that funding is on its way. The U.S. Congress isn’t so sure. The deal is supposedly to curb China in the Indo-Pacific, yet Biden assured Xi Jinping that the countries involved are not aiming to “surround China.”
The U.K., meanwhile, is MIA.
AUKUS was hailed as a new era of defense cooperation at its inception. It would be the alliance that finally stood up to China in this fragile region of the world. Defense spending, plus climate action. Two years later, the deal is on the ropes. In fact, it may not happen at all.
Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese have met nine times since May 2022 to discuss the deal. Australia’s ambassador to the U.S. has publicly expressed frustration over the deal’s slow progress. So has its former prime minister.
In order to go ahead, the U.S. must reform its export controls. Congress has only just elected a new speaker. Two other wars are sucking the air out of the AUKUS debate, even though there is general bipartisan agreement on the need to curb China in the region.
Congress will also need to authorize the sale of at least three Virginia-class submarines to Australia in the 2030s. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, have raised concerns that will come at the cost of the U.S.’s own needs.
Two other problems stand in the way. A Congressional Budget Office report called the deal “difficult and expensive.” U.S. shipyards are struggling to meet the demand, and are well behind schedule. The rate of building nuclear submarines is currently at 1.5 SSN per year. It needs to be at 1.9-2.6 for the deal to pull off.
There are also concerns in Congress about the capabilities and preparedness of weaker militaries in the region, such as Australia and New Zealand, which also have a security pact with the U.S. This has been heightened by Ukraine’s failed counter-offensive against Russia this summer despite billions in U.S. military aid.
On the other side of the Pacific, Australia has delayed inspections and fleet reviews and is not building any of its own new sub vessels. Australian-built nuclear-powered submarines are only due to enter into service in the 2040s (when this author will be in his 50s). The labor prime minister also promised thousands of good paying union jobs; his party expects that to come first, not expensive security deals.
Then, of course, there is the UK. Relations between London and D.C. have been strained since the Trump years. Nobody thinks they are improving. Australia’s Labor Party is openly musing about ditching the British monarchy in favor of a republic.
To make matters worse, a report from the U.K.’s Defense Committee called its presence in the Indo-Pacific “limited.” The strategy for the region, it said, was “unclear,” with its own submarines not set to return for another two years. The U.K. will be unable to play a major role in the region without a “major commitment” of new defense spending, equipment and personnel or “potentially rebalancing existing resources,” according to the document. Little movement has been noted since its publication.
If the arrangement makes no meaningful impact on altering the regional military balance of power, then AUKUS's allies and many other countries in the region will lose faith. If not these three, who will hold China in check here, they rightfully ask. And if nobody, China would be too happy to pour in billions of dollars in exchange for supporting the communist regime over Taiwan.
There is another element to the Indo-Pacific region discussed in the quiet rooms of government buildings: India. AUKUS countries see India as a useful ally in the region and as a counterweight to the rise of China as a superpower.
The issue here is that India still enjoys close ties with China and Russia. Western countries have attempted to woo New Delhi since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though so far to little avail. The other fear is that India’s rise will be hard to contain and that this could lead to tensions along the border with Pakistan (often described as a “friendly enemy” to the U.S.).
A new Australian delegation will travel to D.C. in November for talks. It will discuss efforts to advance cooperation and development in the fields of artificial intelligence, quantum, cyber, electronic warfare, and information sharing. Few are expecting any kind of a breakthrough. But even fewer expect it to fall apart. At least yet.
Fortunately, the issue is simple: all three nations should step up and take this deal more seriously. It will be their fault alone if it falters.
Dr. James C. Pearce previously worked at the University of Liverpool and the College of the Marshall Islands, and lived in Russia for almost a decade. He is the author of “The Use of History in Putin's Russia”, and has written on Russian memory politics, historical narratives, education policy and historical anniversaries. Send feedback to email@example.com.