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.