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AUKUS is America's Litmus Test for Integrated Deterrence

17 May 2023
By Jada Fraser 
The ballistic missile submarine USS Maine arrives at Naval Base Guam, April 18, 2023. Source: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua M. Tolbert/

The trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) will require reinventing roles and behaviours, particularly between the U.S. and Australia. Amplifying Australian power will also require incorporating more of Canberra’s voice in regional strategic policy planning. 

The American narrative on AUKUS is overwhelmingly couched in the context of strategic competition, as is largely the case in both Canberra and London. AUKUS is the long-term, resource-intensive, hard-power signal of Washington’s commitment to its Indo-Pacific allies and the region. It is the ultimate U.S. effort to bolster the military capabilities of Australia amid growing anxieties over a potential U.S.-PRC conflict. Yet there is a tension between the inevitable strategic changes that AUKUS will bring and the accompanying necessary shift in policy coordination in the U.S.-Australia alliance. Comparing American and Australian thinking on AUKUS as it relates to strategic competition with China, alliance roles and responsibilities, and sovereignty reveals both the intersections and disjunctions that have led to this tension.

The Spectrum of American Opinion

Across the spectrum of American opinions on AUKUS, on one end, there are those who view the tripartite pact as strengthening allied deterrence via enhanced capabilities and interoperability. On the other end are those who see AUKUS as adding to a regional arms race, raising tensions, and increasing the possibility for conflict escalation. There are even variants that seemingly meld aspects of each to argue that AUKUS intends to “galvanize greater investments, efforts, and collaborations by other nations…to balance China’s rise.” Further still, some in the U.S. policy community see the capability gains from both Pillar I (nuclear-powered submarines) and Pillar II (advanced capabilities) of AUKUS as directly preparing for a Taiwan contingency. While the “deterrence” narrative largely overwhelms the “conflict escalation” narrative on how AUKUS is framed in the United States, both sides can agree on the significance of the deal.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles has said AUKUS is too big to fail. Should AUKUS do so, against all odds, it would be a serious blow to the Australian military’s capacity to defend the country and its maritime approaches. But for the United States, AUKUS is the litmus test for integrated deterrence. It is the proving ground for the foundation of Washington’s strategic approach to competition with the PRC. If the United States, working with its two most trusted allies, cannot successfully deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia and surmount the obstacles to creating an integrated technology innovation ecosystem, what hope does the Biden administration have to operationalise integrated deterrence elsewhere?

With so much riding on AUKUS for both the United States and Australia, it is essential that Washington and Canberra are sufficiently aligned on the inevitable strategic changes that AUKUS will bring and the accompanying necessary policy coordination shift in the U.S.-Australia alliance.

Recalibrating Policy Formulation and Coordination in the U.S.-Australia Alliance

As Australia’s Defense Strategic Review states, “The United States is no longer the unipolar power in Asia.” Though, unlike Australia’s recent Defense Strategic Review, the United States has yet to acknowledge this fact in its own strategic documents. Still, AUKUS represents a tacit acceptance that the United States cannot be the sole security provider in the Indo-Pacific. While there are segments of the Beltway (and often loud ones) that seek to maintain a strategy of U.S. primacy, there is widespread acknowledgment among policymakers that the asymmetric capability gap between the United States and its adversaries and allies is shrinking.

AUKUS comes from this acknowledgment and is the start of a new U.S. approach to collective security in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS represents a significant shift in the U.S. view of the traditional alliance division of labor in which the U.S. assumed the role of security provider and allies assumed enabling roles that facilitated American power projection. Both Pillar I and II of AUKUS break with this logic and aim to support Australia becoming a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific.

Yet, frictions arise when trying to square this realignment of alliance roles and missions with a parallel recalibration of strategy coordination within the U.S.-Australia alliance. It remains uncertain to what extent an increase in Australia’s role as a security provider through AUKUS will translate into a larger Australian role in U.S. military and policy planning processes. It seems highly unlikely, at least to this author, that Australia’s shouldering of a larger share of the defense burden would not, eventually, lead to the requisite expectation in Canberra that the country should also have a larger say in what the U.S. “allies and partners” strategy in the Indo-Pacific looks like.

AUKUS and Sovereignty

Australian sovereignty featured heavily in the 2023 Defense Strategic Review – “Sovereign military capabilities,” “sovereign defence industrial capacity,” “sovereign Australian posture,” and the goal of being “sovereign-ready” to operate nuclear-powered submarines – to name a few. American observers should take seriously this concern over subverted Australian sovereignty. Yet there is a noticeable lack of U.S. participation, either officially or from the broader community of commentators, in the public debate in Canberra on issues surrounding what AUKUS means for Australian sovereignty. Why is this the case?

President Joe Biden’s view of U.S. alliances as “America’s greatest asset” that “amplify [U.S.] power” implicitly places the United States as an alliance’s primary actor and beneficiary. If it is the case that Washington views AUKUS primarily as a means to amplify U.S. power, then the issue of Australian sovereignty could be a real pain point. This perspective would likely see the United States operating under a set of expectations that Australia would utilise AUKUS capabilities to augment U.S. forces in a conflict.

But such a perspective would be incompatible with AUKUS. AUKUS changes the focus of the alliance from enhancing U.S. power to amplifying Australian power. AUKUS arguably places Australia as the primary actor and beneficiary (at least for Pillar I), not the United States. Discernibly, then, anxieties regarding sovereignty and AUKUS will remain salient in Australia if the United States does not recognise that shifts in roles and missions are only the first step to evolving the alliance. Step two requires a re-balancing of U.S. and Australian strategic priorities and approaches to be commensurate with Canberra’s increasing responsibility in the alliance and in the region. In the short term, alleviating these concerns will require public U.S. messaging that Washington is 1) invested in supporting Australia’s development of the necessary sovereign support structure for AUKUS capabilities and 2) respects Canberra’s sovereign decision-making in their operation.

The changing dynamics in U.S.-Australia roles and missions resulting from AUKUS will continue to reveal blind spots in the United States’ approach to alliance coordination. Whether or not AUKUS lives up to its full potential rests on more than overcoming technological and bureaucratic hurdles. The success of AUKUS will also be measured by Washington’s ability to manage the necessary shift in how the United States thinks about alliance strategy.

Jada Fraser is an MA student in Asian Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and Editor-in-Chief of the Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs. She is a member of the Young Leaders Program and a U.S.-Japan Next Generation Fellow with Pacific Forum. You can find her on Twitter at @JadaCFraser

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.