Submarine Diplomacy

James Denselow
James Denselow

The Aukus Pact has echoes of the chaos of the Trump-era foreign policy. It was an announcement filled with surprise and diplomatic intrigue. The fact that it took the French and perhaps to a lesser extent the Chinese, by surprise has led to a series of direct consequences but we should instead focus at what the pact says about the state of modern geopolitics.

In other words we need to look behind the bluster and drama to understand more substantively what the agreement means. The bluster is in the continuing diplomatic fallout from different parts of the world. While the pact was of course praised by its signatories and allies such as India and Japan, the responses from France and China have captured the headlines.

The French withdrawal of Ambassadors from Australia and the USA has been followed up by the cancelling of bilateral meetings and other commitments. The Chinese condemned the pact accusing its signatories of contributing to an “intensifying arms race”, despite China spending $252bn on deference in 2020.

From both the US and UK perspective the pact gives meaning to the regular refrains to the ‘Asia pivot’ that both countries have prioritised. It gives a nervous Australian administration a place in the strategic cockpit around the issues of Chinese influence in the region. Concern over the power and influence of China is not explicit in language of the leaders who announced it but it is clear in the subtext around the question as to why Australia would need expensive state of the art submarines.

The fact that the announcement of the pact comes so soon after the messy withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan is surely an important part of the historic narrative that is emerging. The US is ‘pivoting’ away from its focus on a global war on terror and rengaging in more traditional power politics such as its competition with a strategic rival like China.

America will not give up on its right to pursue a lethal strategy against terrorists, but it is more likely to be waged from drones and unmanned aerial vehicles than it is by invading armies. That one of the final act of violence committed by the Americans in Afghanistan was a drone strike that mistakenly killed seven children is a reminder of the far from surgical nature of this form of warfare.

So if America is less interested in expensive and endless counter terrorism operations in the Middle East and Southern Asia then its redefined posture towards China is a key issue for the next chapter of global politics. Critics of the Aukus pact have accused it of fuelling a new Cold War and they are surely right that a focus on nuclear submarines brings back memories from the days of Soviet-US competition.

The idea of super stealthy submarines playing cat and mouse in ocean trenches as an expression of state relations is rightfully outdated and absurd. Indeed, ahead of this year’s meetings of the United Nations the Secretary General warned, in the shadow of the Aukus fallout, that China and the United States should repair their “completely dysfunctional” relationship before problems between the two large and deeply influential countries spill over even further into the rest of the planet.

It is spill over, not thankfully global thermonuclear war, that defined much of the actual cost of the original Cold War that spanned the 1946 to 1991 era. Cuba, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea and of course a divided Europe are just some of those arenas of spill over that went far beyond Moscow and Washington.

An early cost of this new strategic rivalry is France’s relationship with three signatories. France is understandably upset with the loss of a $90 billion contract, yet the wider strategic issues of the day will likely see relations restored in the medium term especially after the argument as to why Australia needed nuclear over conventionally diesel submarines is better understood.

Those thinking ahead will be endeavouring to better understand the geopolitics of Taiwan, the Spratly Islands and other parts of the world that have not enjoyed the focus that Iraq and Afghanistan has had over the past twenty years. If there is hope it is that these issues will be played out in corridors of conventional diplomacy and governance with pen and speech, not via submarine diplomacy in the darkness of deep sea with sonar and torpedo.

by: James Denselow

James Denselow,