AUKUS: The Latest Tango for Balance of Power in International Relations

The security partnership signed between the USA, Britain, and Australia on the 15th of September known as AUKUS made not a single explicit hint on China’s hostility in the Pacific. But the defense deal is a clear indication showing the West’s concern in China as an adversary. The paranoia that exists in Washington towards Beijing has not risen out of the blue as the relations between the two states remain in a deteriorated stage since the Trump administration.

The cardinal feature of this pact between these three English-speaking countries is that it has thrust Australia into the rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Despite its long-term strategic alliance with the US and the ideological affinity, Australia depended its economy on China indispensably. Beijing’s reaction towards Australia last year regarding Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID 19 was a hostile one followed by China’s decision to impose 80 percent import tax on Australia’s barley, which led the bilateral relations between the two states to its nadir. Thus, bringing Australia into a defense partnership with the USA and Britain is akin to the act of increasing Australia’s confidence in the USA as the Australian government seems to be assuming that Washington will engage in the region for a long haul. Nevertheless, the crux of the defense partnership is its agreement for the USA to share its Nuclear submarine technology with Australia and it is the first time that the USA shares its nuclear submarine technology with another country, which was previously shared only with Britain under 1958 agreement.

From a theoretical IR perspective, Australia’s reliance on the US and the formation of AUKUS embody a classic illustration of Stephan. M. Walt’s balance of threat politics at work.  Just as how the Anglo-Polish military alliance came into existence in 1939 to counter German threat on Poland, the birth of AUKUS enshrines the West’s security concern on China in the Pacific, which has been increased by China robust military engagement in South China. Given the aggressive military expansion initiated by Beijing, Australia’s eagerness to form a defense alliance the circumstances that encompassed Australia during the peak of the Second World War, especially after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese crowded out Canberra to rely on the Security alliance. Australian premiere during the war, John Curtin declared

“Without any inhabitants of any kind I make it quite clear that Australia looks to the United States, free from any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom”

In the aftermath of the world war, a defense treaty was brokered in 1951 among Australia, the USA, and New Zealand is known as the ANZUS, which later became a pivotal aspect of Australia’s foreign policy. Based on these deeply rooted antecedents, there is no wonder why Australia clings to a new defense pact with the US and UK.

Hans Morgenthau once remarked on the balance of power as a perennial element in human history. Throughout the annals of history, states had always shown their interest in forming alliances with a powerful state against another aggressive power. In the inherent anarchic nature of the international order, where states do not have a “world government” as the last resort to resolve their insecurities, the rise of the balance of power becomes inevitable.

In tracing Australia’s foreign relations strategies in the early 2000s, one can identify Canberra’s duplicity in carving its strategic alliance with both China and the USA simultaneously. While keeping its defense alliance with the USA, Australia moved towards China as its closest trade partner, which was described by then Australia’s prime minister John Howard as an astute strategic alliance that would not lead to a conflict in the long run. Yet contrary to Howard’s expectations, the trade dependency on China has shown its consequences in the long run.

However, immediate outcomes rising from AUKUS seem to have shown less promising impacts on Australia and its relations in the region. For example, Malaysian prime minister Ismail Sabri Yakkob recently criticized Australia’s plan to build nuclear-powered submarines as an act that could spark a renewed armed race in the region. Meanwhile, Indonesia has shown its concern about the continued armed race in the Indo-Pacific. The skeptic reaction that has risen from two ASEAN nations was exacerbated by Washington’s decision to share its nuclear submarine technology with Australia. On the other hand, the foreign strategies maintained by Indonesia and Malaysia as key ASEAN members can be interpreted as naïve strategies akin to appease both the West and China. Despite its vehement criticism of China’s robust military developments in the South China Sea, Malaysia sought Beijing’s stance in the formation of the AUKUS pact.

In general, the core of the AUKUS pact generates pertinent issues on the practicality of “balance of power /threat in the real world beyond the academic lenses of international relations theorists. It is a conspicuous reality that the aim of the balance of power in Indo- Pacific has not been fulfilled by the formation of AUKUS.  From one side, the AUKUS caused agitation for the French regarding the Anglo-Saxon alliance as Australia canceled its contract for purchasing the submarines from France, which led to a diplomatic hullaballoo. From the other side, the reaction from ASEAN has been a mixed package, which provides no garland for this strategic alliance in the Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, it should be noted, that creation of AUKUS has already made an ambivalent position about the role of QUAD, the strategic alliance initiated in 2017 by the US, Japan, India, and Australia. Notwithstanding the claim reiterated by Washington ensuring the due status of QUAD, it is likely to play a second fiddle before the rise of AUKUS as the later one is more clearly defined. In particular, Australia’s development of nuclear submarines has already created a stir in New Delhi as India currently dominates the Eastern Indian Ocean. But, this Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines may erode India’s regional pre-eminence.

The AUKUS is a palpable scenario elucidating why the balance of power becomes a double-edged sword in power politics regardless of its theoretical construction. The scholars in IR tend to assume that balancing is an automatic act, but the ability of states to balance or stave off-balancing coalitions largely remains unanswered in the International Relations scholarship. The present conditions that have emerged after the AUKUS deal challenge Canberra’s expectations.


Punsara Amarasinghe

Ph.D. researcher,

Visiting Fellow, Science PO, Paris, France.

Facebook Comments