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The AUKUS agenda: domestic and international partnership implications beyond submarines

Nuclear-powered submarines are clearly at the heart of the new trilateral AUKUS security partnership prime minister Scott Morrison announced last week along with US president Joe Biden and British prime minister Boris Johnson.

But it’s a much broader, deeper science and technology partnership for national security purposes. This has some profound, positive implications and opportunities for Australia across our research sector and our economy — many of which will be obvious well before the first new submarine turns up.

And, while it’s a hugely positive development in this way, the new partnership risks creating rifts between its three members and European nations at a moment when there was clear policy convergence on one of the challenges of our time — China. That matters.

Of the science and technology partnership, president Biden said: “AUKUS will bring together our sailors, our scientists and our industries to maintain and expand our edge in military capabilities and critical technologies, such as cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and undersea domains.”

China’s pursuit of power through science and technology was the reason for the confrontational dynamic between the Australian government and universities. Several of our most prominent universities had plans based on growing Chinese research partnerships and student numbers, and they’ve found it hard to shift as the changes under Chinese President Xi Jinping have rippled through our economy and our national China policy. 

Now the systemic challenge China poses to our security and that of our partners has created the new AUKUS partnership, which involves decades of research, development and deployment of technologies, concepts and methods across the cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum and undersea domains for national security purposes at paces much faster than in recent decades.

That’s a new agenda that lets us turn the difficult relationship between Australia’s universities and the commonwealth government into its opposite: a close working partnership for the common purpose of our national security.

Australia’s corporate world, not simply the traditional defence industry, is crucial here too, as it’s this trilateral — government, research and corporate — that can be built around the technology menu the three leaders set out.

The AUKUS framework gives shape to cooperation, whether research, government or commercial, and establishes some guideposts for what is and is not in our interests. 

Put simply, deep research collaboration with Chinese state entities or research partners on any of the core focus areas of AUKUS is unlikely to be in our interests and would only complicate opportunities with our US and UK partners. But deep public and private research and development with AUKUS partners is likely to be supported — and far more likely to be funded for corporate and government purposes. There are some early signs that key parts of our national research sector understand this. No surprises that top nuclear physicists are included here.

A clear example is quantum technologies, which have been explored from a national security perspective in recent ASPI work

Internationally, the accelerated capabilities out of AUKUS will give the US and Australia more military weight and thus complement the other important emerging strategic grouping: the Quad, which includes India and Japan. 

But turning from this bright future, the new trilateral also creates some difficulties for relationships with key partners internationally, starting with the French, but cascading across other powerful EU partners, too. There are some tangible downsides to the fast multilateralism practised by Biden, Johnson and Morrison, mixed in among the strategic benefits of the approach. 

It’s an insight into how his administration has operated from its first day in office to understand that Biden seeks cooperation with as large a group as possible, whether domestically or internationally, but he’s a man running an administration that’s in a hurry to get things done. That leads him to work most closely with partners who share an agenda and a sense of urgency and activism.

Biden uses such cooperation to bring others along. Morrison and Johnson have similar instincts — you can see that in Morrison’s new post-Wuhan “positive globalism” approach to foreign policy and international organisations, and in Johnson’s efforts to create a new future for “Global Britain” post-Brexit.

Fast multilateralism works — and sometimes when it works, it also doesn’t work. The submarine issue is a graphic illustration of this. It risks dividing the US, the UK and Australia from Europe on security and economics right when our interests are converging rapidly and when our policies were, too. 

The symbolism of AUKUS being announced a few hours before the EU’s long-awaited and impressive Indo-Pacific strategy made this all too clear. As did the French foreign minister’s re-energised statements about the need for European autonomy not from Beijing but from Washington, and the French ambassador’s recall in reaction to the shocking cancellation of what France had hailed as its “contract of the century” in 2016. All just after an ambitious new agenda for Australia-France relations was publicly announced on August 30 by our foreign and defence ministers.

Washington, Canberra and London need to take the French reaction seriously and work to rebuild the trust that partnerships with us will be enduring and reliable. France is only one European state, but the shockwaves go well beyond the French border. Our common interests in the Indo-Pacific (including in the South Pacific) remain, but we must re-establish the policy convergence this was creating. 

Australia has done just that with Japan after the dark days from our earlier rejection of that critical partner’s strategic technological partnership around submarines — but that owes as much to Japanese insight and perseverance as it does to our efforts.

Maybe the breadth of the positive science and development agenda we have established contains some seeds for this, because European minds and knowledge are wrestling with the same challenges for similar reasons. There is a broad agenda beyond this for Australia, at least, to build a strategy for engagement with the EU and with individual European states — such as France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordic states, all of which have a growing Indo-Pacific focus that spans security, technology and economics. And to stick to it, backed by money and time.

So, the implications — positive and negative — from the profound new strategic development of AUKUS mean focusing just on the wonders of submarines with reactors would be a mistake. What we do from here requires common purpose, energy and a healthy dose of humility. It turns out Isaac Newton was right — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.


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