Biden Shouldn’t Count on the Submarine Deal to Best China
For more than a decade, Washington has struggled to prioritize what it calls great power competition with China — a contest for military and political dominance. President Biden has been working hard to make the pivot to Asia that his two predecessors never quite managed.
The landmark defense pact with Australia and Britain, AUKUS, that Mr. Biden announced this month is a major step to making that pivot a reality. Under the agreement, Australia will explore hosting U.S. bombers on its territory, gain access to advanced missiles and receive nuclear propulsion technology to power a new fleet of submarines.
On the surface, AUKUS provides a way to aid the deployment of advanced military hardware in Asia and draw a clearer line between countries standing with China and those standing against it.
But the agreement also reflects the problems of great power competition. It’s not clear whether it will help address the security challenges posed by China — or be worth the costs.
Although AUKUS made headlines about a united Anglophone front against China, it caused issues with other allies (namely France). It risks compromising long-term nonproliferation interests in favor of near-term militarism. It directs immense resources to ineffective strategies. It reacts to China’s military buildup but does not provide a credible deterrent or seriously alter the regional military balance against Beijing.
Take the case of Taiwan, considered by many to be the most pressing challenge to the United States from China. The prospect of a Chinese attack on the island is preoccupying generals and policymakers and driving Pentagon budgets and planning amid concerns of aggression.
War games inside and outside the Pentagon show that China’s massive military buildup has increased Beijing’s capability to rapidly gain control over Taiwan. It is far more difficult for the United States and its allies to project power thousands of miles to Taiwan than it is for China to project power 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait. U.S. aircraft simply cannot fly enough sorties to overwhelm both China’s aircraft and its missile defense systems. Allied ships are too few and too vulnerable to Chinese missiles to control the seas around the island.
The AUKUS agreement does not change these facts. And any marginal gains are likely to be too little, too late. It will be at least a decade before the first new Australian submarine is put to sea. Meanwhile, according to U.S. naval intelligence, China will add six nuclear-powered attack submarines by 2030 and is expanding production facilities, in addition to its rapid construction of diesel-electric submarines.
That doesn’t mean the United States and its allies should abandon Taiwan. But it does mean that we cannot expect to defend Taiwan by overwhelming China with superior firepower projected from distant bases and ports. Neither AUKUS submarines nor U.S. bombers flying from northern Australia are likely to tip the balance if they are dedicated to the same losing strategy. So the three nations in the AUKUS agreement are not more likely to intervene or more capable of doing so.
This is a hallmark of great power competition: Competitive initiatives like AUKUS provide visible ways to counter or balance or complicate China’s military activities but don’t necessarily help allies meet defined objectives. More often, competition becomes an end in itself — an open-ended imperative that assumes everything an opponent dislikes must be good policy.
Another common feature of competitive policies is that officials tend to overlook their costs.
For one thing, AUKUS carries significant diplomatic costs at a time when the United States is in desperate need of credibility with its allies. France views AUKUS as “a knife in the back” because Australia sealed it by backing out of a 2016 deal worth $66 billion to purchase French diesel-electric submarines. That perceived betrayal could cause unnecessary friction in NATO and make it more difficult to cooperate with France on China.
In Asia, the agreement exposes the Quad — an informal partnership of the United States, Japan, India and Australia — as thin multilateralism, willing to coordinate on issues from health to military exercises but apparently unwilling or unable to directly confront China. This much was evident when a White House statement after a meeting of the Quad last week did not offer much concrete help for Asian nations facing interference from China.
There is also the risk that the deal spooks Southeast Asian nations that, despite facing threats from China, worry about getting caught in the middle of this great power competition and could become less likely to cooperate with U.S. initiatives that might anger Beijing, their biggest and most powerful neighbor.
Moreover, the AUKUS agreement, with its sharing of nuclear propulsion technology, could do significant damage to nonproliferation interests. Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia rightly promised that the nation “is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability.” But that assurance won’t necessarily prevent or deter other countries from exploiting the loophole in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that allows diversion of nuclear materials for naval reactors.
As the AUKUS nations hammer out details of the agreement over the next 18 months, the countries should consider two adjustments to make sure it sets a strong precedent. First, Australia should commit not to enrich uranium or reprocess reactor fuel domestically while it operates the reactors. Second, those nations should consider including France in the agreement in order to use its reactor designs, which run on low-enriched uranium — considered less of a proliferation risk than the highly enriched uranium in U.S. or British designs.
U.S. officials will also have to work hard to ensure the agreement does not cause problems with South Korea, another ally exploring nuclear-powered submarines and one where many politicians and nearly 70 percent of the public support developing nuclear weapons.
The Biden administration should take a breath and make certain it does not reflect a self-defeating, militarized concept of great power that pushes other potential partners away in bullheaded pursuit of agreement on one issue. It should institute strong nonproliferation safeguards, repair damage to other vital alliances and ensure that the plan isn’t throwing good money after bad strategy.
The administration should be investing in more cost-effective ways to thwart China’s ability to project military power, like long-range air defenses and anti-ship missiles, not expensive systems that stand little chance of overwhelming China’s forces near its borders. The administration also should recognize when military might is not the answer — and do more to raise the economic and diplomatic costs of Chinese aggression.
Mr. Biden should guarantee that agreements like AUKUS do not undermine the United States’ deterrence credibility, its alliances and partnerships and its long-term interests like nuclear nonproliferation. Too often, a narrow focus on great power competition just leaves America less competitive in the long run.
Adam Mount (@ajmount) is a senior fellow at and the director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Van Jackson (@WonkVJ) is a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington and a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
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