An explainer of the agreement that’s making headlines this week
The AUKUS agreement – which was struck between Australia, the UK and the U.S. in 2021 – is making international headlines this week. The leaders of the three countries are expected to announce details about when Australia will receive new nuclear submarines at a meeting in the U.S. next week. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese calls it the “biggest leap in our defence capability in our history”. Why is it such a big deal? Here’s what you need to know.
What is AUKUS?
AUKUS is an agreement between the three countries to share military technology. This will cover a range of areas, but the initial focus is on nuclear-powered submarines. In the next few decades, Australia will gain access to these advanced submarines, which can remain underwater for longer than conventional submarines. However, while AUKUS is mainly about technology, it’s also seen as a major shift in the countries’ attitudes towards China and the surrounding region.
The Pacific region
Tensions between China and the U.S. have long influenced politics in the Pacific, but China’s growing aggression under President Xi Jinping has prompted an attitude shift for many countries. In Australia, 75% of people now think China is “likely” to be a “military threat” to us compared to 45% just a few years ago, according to a survey by the Lowy Institute. AUKUS reflects this shift. Australia, the U.S. and the UK have long been allies but this is an unusually strong move to boost military capacity in the region and has been seen as the largest signal yet that the three countries see China as a threat.
AUKUS is just one example of Australia and the U.S. seeking to strengthen their position in the region relative to China. The countries have strong ties with Japan and South Korea and have been building ties with the Philippines, Indonesia, Pacific islands and India, including through the newly-prominent ‘Quad’ dialogue with India and Japan. There have also been tensions with China in the South China Sea (a valuable area of water with contested ownership) and firm language from both sides on Taiwan – the self-governing island that China claims as its own territory.
China has been highly critical of AUKUS. A Chinese Government spokesperson at the time of the agreement said it “seriously undermined regional peace and stability [and] intensified an arms race”. Opinions in southeast Asian countries are divided – in a 2022 survey of several countries, only three (Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar) showed majority support for AUKUS, although there was very strong support for the Quad partnership between Australia, the U.S, Japan and India.
The details of Australia’s nuclear submarines will be revealed on Monday, but it’s expected they will be at least partly built in Australia and will be available for use by the late 2030s. It’s expected the U.S. will operate nuclear submarines out of Western Australia prior to then. Note: These submarines are nuclear powered but that does not mean they carry nuclear weapons. Australia does not own nuclear weapons.