Contention over South China Sea

The big deal behind the ruckus over AUKUS

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : AUKUS, Quad

Mains level : Focus areas and challenges for AUKUS

The announcement of the new Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) trilateral security pact has naturally generated animated debate in strategic circles, before the QUAD summit.

What is the AUKUS?

  • The first major initiative of AUKUS would be to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia.
  • The nuclear-powered submarines will give Australia naval heft in the Pacific, where China has been particularly aggressive.
  • While the US and Britain have had the capability for decades, Australia has never had an n-sub.

Motive: To counter China

  • China has nuclear-powered submarines, as well as submarines that can launch nuclear missiles.
  • The three signatories to the AUKUS deal have made it clear though, that their aim is not to arm the new subs with nuclear weapons.
  • China has been one of Australia’s biggest trading partners, but the relationship has soured over the last few years.
  • It was in consideration of Chinese sensibilities that Australia had pulled out of the Malabar Naval Exercise with the US, India, and Japan after participating in the 2007 edition (of which Singapore too, was part).
  • Australia came back to Malabar in 2020, which marked the first time in 13 years that the navies of the four Quad nations war-gamed together.

Australia at the Centrestage

  • This is primarily because a nuclear-powered submarine gives a navy the capability to reach far out into the ocean and launch attacks.
  • A nuclear-powered submarine offers long distances dives, at a higher speed, without being detected gives a nation the ability to protect its interests far from its shores.
  • In the context of the AUKUS agreement, nuclear-powered submarines will give the Royal Australian Navy the capability to go into the South China Sea.
  • It conclusively puts to rest a long-standing domestic debate on whether it was time for Australia to assess China through the strategic lens, overcoming the purely mercantile considerations that tended to dominate its China policy.

What makes nuclear submarines so important?

  • A nuclear-powered submarine is classified as an “SSN” under the US Navy hull classification system, wherein ‘SS’ is the symbol for submarine, and ‘N’ stands for nuclear.
  • A nuclear-powered submarine that can launch ballistic missiles is called “SSBN”.
  • Conventional diesel-engine submarines have batteries that keep and propel — though not very fast — the vessel underwater. The life of these batteries can vary from a few hours to a few days.
  • The newer Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines have additional fuel cells that allow them to stay underwater for longer and move faster than the conventional vessels.
  • However, the fuel cells are used only at strategic times, when the endurance to remain submerged is required.
  • Both conventional and AIP subs need to come to the surface to recharge their batteries using the diesel engine.
  • The diesel engine also propels the vessel on the surface. However, the fuel cells of AIP can only be charged at on-land stations, not while at sea.

Why is France unhappy about Australia getting these submarines?

  • The deal has complicated the relations between France and Australia, and also France and the US.
  • France is upset as it has been kept out of the loop. But, with the core objective of pushing back against China’s aggression, all five countries — US, UK, Australia, France and India — are on the same track.
  • The deal between France and Australia had been marked by delays and other issues.
  • The first submarine was expected to be operational around 2034.

Does India have nuclear-powered submarines?

  • Yes, India is among the six nations that have SSNs. The other five are the US, the UK, Russia, France and China.
  • India has had the capacity since it got the Soviet-built K-43 Charlie-class SSN in 1987.
  • Commissioned with the Red Fleet of the USSR in 1967, it was leased to the Indian Navy, and was rechristened INS Chakra. The submarine was decommissioned in 1991.

Indo-Pacific is the core issue

  • France, which like the UK has historically been an Indo-Pacific power with territories and bases across the region.
  • It has participated in a multi-nation naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal with the four Quad nations.
  • There is no gainsaying the fact that rapid accretion in China’s economic and military capacities, but more particularly its belligerence, has led to a tectonic shift in regional security paradigms.
  • Several countries have been obliged to review their defence preparedness in response to China’s rising military power and its adverse impact on regional stability.

A chance for the UK

  • The AUKUS pact is also an emphatic assertion of the relevance of the U.S.-Australia Security Treaty (ANZUS).
  • New Zealand, the outlier, walked away in 1984 from the treaty that ironically still bears its initials.
  • Its “nuclear-free” stance ran counter to the U.S. Navy’s non-disclosure policy in regard to nuclear weapons aboard visiting vessels.
  • Close ties notwithstanding, Australia’s future fleet of nuclear submarines will not be permitted access to New Zealand’s ports or waters, as averred by PM Jacinda Ardern.
  • AUKUS provides a fresh opportunity to the United Kingdom to reinsert itself more directly into the Indo-Pacific.
  • It is already a member of the Five Eyes (FVEY), an intelligence-sharing alliance built on Anglo-Saxon solidarity (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S.).

AUKUS is not a substitute for the Quad

  • It does not erode the Quad’s significance as a platform for consultations and coordination on broader themes of maritime security, free and open trade, health care, critical technologies, supply chains and capacity-building.
  • The AUKUS submarine deal, on the other hand, is an undiluted example of strategic defence collaboration, and a game-changer at that.

Chinese reception of AUKUS

  • China, expectedly, has strongly criticised AUKUS and the submarine deal as promoting instability and stoking an arms race.

The exposed double standards

  • China has the world’s fastest-growing fleet of sub-surface combatants.
  • This includes the Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) and the Type 094 nuclear-powered Jin-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).
  • Its nuclear submarines are on the prowl in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Yet, China denies Australia and others the sovereign right to decide on their defence requirements.

What’s in the box of AUKUS?

Ans. Greater role for Australia

  • Australia’s proposed nuclear submarines will give quite a punch in terms of a stand-off capability.
  • The growing focus on anti-submarine warfare across a more expansive region is clearly altering calculations.
  • Australia’s nuclear submarines would help create a new balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, especially in tandem with the U.S. and the U.K.
  • It will now have a more meaningful naval deterrence of its own to protect its sovereign interests.
  • It is set to play a more robust role in ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Way forward

  • The setback ‘down under’ may spur France to focus afresh on partners such as India.
  • India must strike a balance between continuing imports and implementing the all-important Atmanirbhar Bharat in defence manufacturing.
  • France should take AUKUS as a business deal.
  • Its momentary reaction at the cancellation of the contract by Australia should soon subside.
  • As a major Indo-Pacific power, France is an important part of the regional security calculus.

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