A new military alliance between the US, Australia and the UK will, for the first time, provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
While not officially aimed at another country, the “Aukus” deal aims to deter China’s growing influence in the South Pacific. While many policymakers believe deterrence is the only way to protect the west’s interests, this strategy carries significant risks to the UK and its allies.
Aukus is a direct response to China’s recent efforts to modernise and expand its nuclear capabilities. Western democracies are also concerned about China’s growing involvement in the contested territories on the South China Sea.
The alliance reflects the view, commonly held by foreign policymakers, that China’s actions are a direct challenge to American and British influence in the region and must be actively resisted. But this view has been challenged by international relations scholars and foreign policy analysts. They believe that the west should engage China in diplomacy rather than resist it.
Some commentators and policymakers believe that two countries with nuclear weapons would never attack each other for fear of mutual annihilation. A key – and dangerous – assumption of this belief is that people are rational agents.
This assumption ignores that people often make decisions based on emotional responses, rather than rational calculations. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1959 – and how close the US and Russia were to launching nuclear strikes against each other – is an example of this. The decision to deploy nuclear weapons was a result of a series of misunderstandings and perceptions, rather than an actual threat posed by either side. A Russian officer’s refusal to follow orders is the only reason the Cold War did not end up in a nuclear disaster.
While a defensive response to China’s nuclear expansion is understandable, it risks creating the so-called “security dilemma”. This is a situation where one party, worried about its security, improves its military capabilities. But instead of solving the security issues, the actions escalate the conflict with other parties, producing an outcome which all were trying to avoid.
While Aukus is a clear attempt to deter China from further expansion, it is likely to have the opposite effect. In response to perceived threat from the western allies, China is more likely to make further efforts to improve its military capability in response. This could lead to a situation very similar to the US-Russian arms race during the Cold War.
When Chinese and western policymakers talk past each other rather than engage in a constructive dialogue, tensions are likely to rise. During former US president Donald Trump’s administration, instead of engaging with China on its questionable economic practices, the US levied tariffs on Chinese imports, leading to a US-China trade war that continues to this day.
If the strategy of nuclear deterrence bears so many risks, why is the UK involved in Aukus? After all, the US has the ability to provide Australia with all the technology and logistic support in needs to develop nuclear-powered submarines. Yet, according to recent news reports, the UK took the lead in making this partnership a reality, despite the fact that it will contribute much less than the US.
Post-Brexit Britain is keen to reestablish itself as a global player. It is also looking to improve its relationship with the US which has been strained by the hasty withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan last month.
Aukus is an opportunity for the UK government to convince the world, and its electorate, that Britain does not need the EU, and that “Global Britain” can be a key player on the international stage.
What’s the alternative?
It is clear that the relationship between China and the west is strained by mutual suspicion and hostile exchanges. While China fears that the west poses a threat to its domestic political regime, western nations worry that an expansionist China will become more aggressive in the coming years.
The lack of sustained diplomatic engagement with China means that policymakers are likely to continue misinterpreting each other’s actions.
A much better solution would be to engage China on its current nuclear armament policy. The Arms Control Association, a US nonpartisan organisation promoting effective arms control, suggests that western nuclear powers could use their experience of post-Cold War diplomacy to develop a system where states report on their nuclear weapons holdings to each other.
More ambitiously, the UK and its allies should engage China on nuclear disarmament – not provide it with an excuse to continue its nuclear expansion.
Barbara Yoxon does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.