AUKUS and the Future of UK Foreign Policy

Last week, on the docks of Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, United States President Joe Biden, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gathered side-by-side to outline the details of what Sunak termed “the most significant multilateral defence partnership in generations”. Initially announced 18 months ago, last week’s Summit sought to flesh out and finalise the details of the AUKUS agreement, and delivered a two-pillared, multi-decade plan, framed around intensified collaboration between the UK, the United States and Australia.

What is AUKUS?

Pillar one involves the three nations building, manning and deploying a squadron of nuclear-powered submarines. From 2027, a rotation of up to five British and United States submarines will support the defence of Australian waters, followed by – pending Congressional approval – the purchase of up to five United States submarines by Canberra in the 2030s, solving Australia’s submarine deficit. This plan culminates in the 2040s, by which time a fleet of UK-designed ‘SSN-Aukus’ submarines, using American defence technology, will enter UK and Australian waters.

The second pillar outlines a path of long-term, advanced technological information-sharing and co-creation between the three nations, in fields increasingly critical to both national prosperity and security, such as artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, cyber security and hypersonic weapons.

But what implications does this landmark partnership hold for UK foreign policy? Besides bringing important changes to how ultra-sensitive technology is shared amongst allies, what are the geopolitical impacts that this pact will deliver?

Indo-Pacific: A Full-Bodied Tilt

A principal takeaway of the AUKUS agreement is that one of the UK’s flagship foreign policy agendas, the Indo-Pacific tilt, is here to stay. 

As a prism through which the UK expresses the Indo-Pacific tilt, the fact that AUKUS takes up the lion’s share of the immediate defence funding commitments announced in the Integrated Review Refresh and 2023 Spring budget, must not be overlooked. The Refresh (which BFPG has summarised here) laid out a £5 billion immediate uplift for the defence industry, of which £3 billion will go to the defence nuclear enterprise industry (including AUKUS), sending a firm message that longer-term strategic engagement in the Indo-Pacific region is to be prioritised, even amid depleted defence resources.

This comes as the ‘tilt’ announced in the Integrated Review of 2021 – framed largely around non-military means – has, according to the Government, been achieved. The Refresh makes clear that we can now expect the UK to re-orientate its focus to embedding longer-term strategic engagement with the region. AUKUS represents a critical practical and substantial manifestation of the next, strategic stage of the tilt.

With caution taken to sensitively engage regional partners over the last 18 months, the AUKUS pact looks to have avoided potential damage to the UK’s reputation in the region (beyond Beijing). Instead, with leaders in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and other regional players (albeit less vocally) onboard with an increased Western presence to help secure a free and open Indo-Pacific, there is considerable potential for the UK government and businesses to capitalise on new opportunities in the region.

Countering China

The implicit calculus that is buttressing this alliance’s commitment to bulking up Australia’s undersea capabilities is that the partnership provides a firm Western counterbalance to what Sunak describes as ‘increasingly concerning’ behaviour from China. The details revealed at the Summit not only provide the alliance with deterrence capabilities to safeguard the freedom of the Indo-Pacific waters, but also provide the UK and the United States with a pivotal and tangible toehold in Beijing’s backyard.

The Summit occurred against the backdrop of particularly strained diplomatic relations between the West and China, as the West watches with growing concern China’s increasing naval power, its ambition to build its armed forces into a “great wall of steel”, and its calls for the reunification of Taiwan with China.

With the details of the AUKUS pact being announced within hours of the Integrated Review Refresh, which labelled China as an “epoch-defining and systemic challenge”, and outlining steps to protect Britain against Chinese influence and aggression, from a UK point of view the Summit played a calculated role in signifying a strengthened position against Beijing’s assertiveness. While the UK has outlined that engagement with China will remain a tight balancing act – with collaboration still needed in a range of areas, particularly climate – AUKUS signifies a firm investment in bolstering the UK’s defensive capabilities.

Unsurprisingly, while the AUKUS allies see merit in tightening their ties, the move has not gone down well with China. Fearful of an allied encirclement strategy, China has accused the alliance of reigniting a “zero-sum, Cold War mentality”, and insinuated that the three nations are abandoning their international obligations to ensure peace and stability. With the implicit goals of AUKUS posing a significant challenge to China’s ambitions, what countermoves might we see?

– Efforts from Beijing to wield its economic clout to pressure regional players to distance themselves from the AUKUS partners. Reducing imports from countries that are supportive of the AUKUS partners and investing in building closer ties with those who appear wary – e.g. through the Belt and Road initiative – are potential options to undercut the West’s leverage in the region. China has long used the promotion of its own economic model – characterised by strong state intervention – as a key pillar in its foreign policy and is well positioned to push on with an enhanced strategy, aimed at countering the influence of the Western-led alliance. 

– A soft power offensive among neutral neighbours could also instrumentalise cultural and educational incentives to attract allies away from the allegiance. A recognised soft power superpower, China could turbocharge its cultural relations – building on its promotion of training and skills opportunities, cultural and educational exchanges – in a concerted effort to face off against the West. 

– Finally, China may also seek to strengthen its strategic partnerships with countries which see themselves as rivals of the alliance, in a more overt effort to muscle the West out of the region. Most obviously, China and Russia are progressively pursuing closer ties – with Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting Moscow this week, having consistently refused to use the word ‘invasion’ when referring to the war in Ukraine. United in their hostility to the West, the bolstering of Western defence capabilities in China’s backyard may trigger closer ties between Beijing and Moscow, which will only heighten Western concern of a return to Cold War-like rivalry.

A Win for Alliances

As a manifestation of an open, international and collaborative Britain, AUKUS sends a strong signal that allied cooperation is back on the table. 

AUKUS is a defining example of the new shared strategic focus on an ‘Atlantic-Pacific’ theatre emphasised in the Integrated Review Refresh: a renewed outlook, imbued with the spirit of international cooperation, based on a view that the prosperity and security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are inextricably linked.

The UK’s active support for increasing cross-regional ties – embodied by deals like AUKUS and the Global Combat Air Programme with Japan and Italy – goes a long way to demonstrating that the UK is not “going it alone” post-Brexit. The AUKUS deal marks another rung on a ladder of increasingly collaborative moves from the UK, including the gradual strengthening of UK-European relations through strong cooperation on the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the successful negotiation of the Windsor Framework, and the recent breaking of bread at the UK-France Summit. 

Is Britain Back?

So, with Sunak announcing “Britain is back” as he touched down in San Diego, is the UK entering a new chapter internationally? 

To supporters, AUKUS is a game changer. It certainly places the UK back on the map and signifies a distinct new era in how the UK is to approach alliances. In setting the precedent for intensified, long-term cooperation with fellow allies, AUKUS has the potential to trigger and forge significant long-term benefits and partnerships for the UK.

Yet, as is clear from the serious and, at times, sombre tone of the Refresh, the world is facing an increasingly volatile geopolitical arena, and AUKUS cannot hope to be a silver bullet. The pact is a classic act of deterrence, and one that the UK and its allies have been forced to make. Many question marks remain over both the feasibility of the pact, as well as its ability to improve security and prosperity at all – with China accusing the defence pact as simply “intensifying the arms race”. Only a few days post-announcement, it is hard to judge.  The proof of AUKUS’ real value will only come once tangible outcomes begin to be attached to the strong – and strongly-contested – rhetoric.

Eliza Keogh

Eliza Keogh is a Researcher and Programmes Manager at BFPG