2022: the year of AUKUS according to the Anglo-Saxon calendar

MOSCOW, 03 Jan 2022, RUSSTRAT Institute.

The emergence of the Australia-UK-US trilateral military alliance, dubbed AUKUS, was unexpected for most analysts and even for the NATO partners of these countries. However, the greatest outrage was caused not so much by the level of trust between the allies, but by the financial side of the issue: after Australia unilaterally canceled the deal with Paris to supply submarines for €56 billion, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called AUKUS a “stab in the back”.

On September 17, 2021, France recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington for consultations in protest at the conclusion of this pact. At the level of statements, Paris was supported by the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who said that “one of our member countries was treated unacceptably”, which means that the European Commission demands an answer – what happened and why.

Apparently, the answers from Washington were received in a rather convincing form: the seemingly loud scandal died out as quickly as it was formed. Despite the doubts expressed by Paris at the level of the Foreign Minister about the strength of further French cooperation with NATO, at the moment, the stability of the North Atlantic alliance, according to external signs, is not in danger.

This story, which once again showed the true alignment of forces in NATO and the level of “trust” of members in each other, can certainly be perceived as a symptomatic event.

However, something else is important here: in a short time and in conditions of secrecy, two NATO countries with the largest fleets among the alliance’s members signed an agreement with Australia. And the reason for this pact was serious enough to ignore the protests of France, and the discontent, due to solidarity, of other major NATO allies in Europe.

The fact that the creation of AUKUS has become the main US foreign policy goal for 2021 was directly stated by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. More precisely, there were three main results of American diplomacy – the abstract “restoring US leadership in international organisations” and “bringing together world leaders to solve global problems” were also mentioned, but there was only one concrete result.

The reason why AUKUS has become a direct and indirect priority of American foreign policy is quite obvious – it is China. Or, as was even more specifically expressed in an interview with the BBC by Guy Boekenstein, Senior Director of Defence and National Security for the Australian Northern Territory Government: “All three nations are drawing a line in the sand to start and counter the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) aggressive moves in the Indo-Pacific.”

The measures that AUKUS will use were announced immediately after the proclamation of the new military bloc. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the first major initiative of AUKUS will be the delivery of a nuclear submarine fleet for Australia. Serial production of the submarine is expected to begin no later than mid-2023 at the shipyards of Adelaide, Australia, but the technical and organisational functions will actually be taken over by the United States and Great Britain.

It is necessary in a short time to build a fleet of submarines capable of being in combat for a long time, Scott Morrison said. It was the unacceptable execution horizon of the “French” contract, as well as the characteristics of submarines that were supposed to be built under it, that were identified as the main reason for Australia’s unilateral withdrawal from the agreement.

Australia would receive the first submarines – diesel, not nuclear – under a contract with the French Naval Group from 2017, “possibly by 2038” and it is unlikely that these boats would meet the technological demands of the moment, said Scott Morrison. This, however, is not entirely correct from the point of view of the technical task, which assumed the creation of boats “superior to all that are available in the region”. In addition, the agreement was designed not only for the construction of boats, but also for the creation of infrastructure for their basing, as well as the technical support and training of crews for 50 years.

There is a remarkable moment in the history of the agreement rejected by Canberra – Paris won the contest in competition with Tokyo. An important role in the decision was played by the fact that Australia’s cooperation with Japan could cause difficulties with China. As we can see, less than four years after the signing of the agreement with Paris, this factor is no longer taken into account.

“Not-Great Britain”

It is worth noting that AUKUS is not limited to the construction of submarines – at least 8, as was noted by Scott Morrison. The Prime Minister of Australia promised not to stop at the current “military” 2% of GDP, and among the weapons that will be available to Australia, American-made Tomahawk cruise missiles to equip Australian destroyers were mentioned. And, even more important from a strategic perspective, the idea of creating a national military industry in Australia based on American missile technologies was voiced.

The modern Australian army, according to the Global Firepower Index, ranks 19th in the world and has a total of 80,000 people (+20,000 reservists), provided that more than 25 million people live in the country. The Royal Navy consists of 48 surface and submarine vessels – with their own specifics.

Australia has the quite rare universal amphibious assault ships “Adelaide” and “Canberra”, capable of carrying up to 18 attack helicopters each. Australia has only six submarines – diesel-electric type “Collins”, which were designed in 1987-1989 by the Swedish company Kockums and built in Adelaide from 1990 to 2003.

Plans for the construction of eight nuclear submarines mean a multiple increase in the quantitative and even more qualitative combat capabilities of the Australian fleet, which until now has been unable to perform tasks other than purely defensive ones. In addition, the Australian Defence Department announced the launch of a permanent program to train “nuclear” specialists capable of servicing the large nuclear submarine fleet, allocating funding for the search for the right talents.

Immediately after the conclusion of the AUKUS pact, an extremely formal media briefing was held in Washington, with almost no specifics in the responses. However, it was read between the lines that Australia’s “muscle building” would not be limited to submarines and missiles. One of the journalists asked whether AUKUS really assumes access of American bombers and fighter jets to Australian airfields, and whether the information about the creation of a fully-fledged ammunition industry in Australia is fair. These theses were not refuted.

Interestingly, the White House official brought the UK to the forefront of AUKUS, recalling that most recently there was “a significant deployment of British troops throughout the Indo-Pacific region – a very successful deployment of an aircraft carrier group.”

Recall that we are talking about the long trip to the Indo-Pacific region of the flagship of the Royal Navy of Great Britain – the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth – which set sail in May, and returned to Portsmouth on December 10.

In the seven-month campaign, the aircraft carrier was accompanied by eight ships and support vessels, as well as a submarine. In addition to the fact that it was the first time in many years that the British Fleet went to long-distance waters, the campaign was remembered for the incident on November 17, when a British F-35B fighter, launched from the Queen Elizabeth, almost immediately fell into the Mediterranean Sea.

“It is clear that the UK has huge responsibilities and interests in Europe and the Middle East, but it also has deep historical ties to Asia,” continued the representative of the current administration of US President Joe Biden. “I think they’ve made it clear to us that they really want to do more in the future, and I think this is a clear and decisive next step in that direction.”

“The UK’s desire to significantly step up its game in the Indo-Pacific region” was repeatedly emphasised during the briefing. Thus, a very clear message was formed – whatever AUKUS is, Washington intends to put Great Britain as the vanguard of this bloc. Australia, in the framework of this concept, becomes militarily the farthest English island, and the mentioned 8 submarines are most likely to be built by British hands.

Later, this point of view was supported by a number of reputable experts. David Camroux, a research associate and professor at the Center for International Studies (CERI) at the Paris Institute for Political Studies (ET) and the Vietnam National University (USSH) in Hanoi, examines the issue in more detail in an article for The Diplomat.

So, American shipyards simply do not have free space in the schedule for the coming decades, and Australia’s needs are likely to be reduced to smaller submarines that are produced for the US Navy. Most likely, Camroux believes, the future basis of the Australian nuclear submarine fleet will be a variation of the Astute-class submarine of the British fleet. American manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin, will provide weapons systems, but their main contribution will be expressed in the creation of high-tech weapons.

Camroux writes that on the eve of the AUKUS report, it became known about the request of the commander-in-chief of the Royal Australian Navy to his British counterpart for support.

“This request is understandable: Historically the Australian submarine fleet has been dependent on expertise from the Royal Navy and a number of senior officers are from Britain. But other than questions of comradeship, for very rational reasons, the British seemed to have jumped on this opportunity.

At a practical strategic level, AUKUS will enable Britain to have more permanent basing rights for its own nuclear-powered submarines in Australia. This would enable a more sustained naval presence in the Indo-Pacific rather than the fleeting deployment, as at the moment,” Camroux said.

A mere two days after the AUKUS announcement, the British government awarded two contracts to BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce for initial design work on a new generation of nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines for the Royal Navy. It makes a great deal of industrial sense to share design costs with a reliable partner-client, i.e. Australia, especially as BAE Systems already has a significant presence there, Camroux believes.

“I think that the process of the next 18 months should help determine what exactly this means,” said the White House representative, summing up the speech about the UK’s ambitions in the new military-political bloc. Thus again marking the first half of 2023 as a bifurcation point in the implementation of the AUKUS project.

Reason for the rush

Over the past year, the opinion has become almost mainstream in American analytics that if the US navy race has not already been lost to China, then this fact will become obvious in the near future. Major military historian Claude Berube, who teaches at the US Naval Academy and was responsible for a number of areas at the US Navy intelligence headquarters, recalls in an article on the WarOnTheRocks resource that almost two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his book “Democracy in America“ that America “was born to rule the seas”.

“America has achieved this, but nothing lasts forever. We hear a lot of talk about when the Chinese armed forces will overtake the US armed forces, but if to look at the navy, it has already happened: China now has the world’s largest navy,” said Berube, giving an up-to-date assessment of the situation.

The historian cites the following figures: only 25% of the 114 American surface warships are younger than 10-years-old. By comparison, more than 80% of the more than 140 Chinese ships have been commissioned in the last decade. In early 2021, the US Navy began decommissioning some coastal ships, while China, on the contrary, mass-produced 120 surface ships.

American ships in some cases operate using technologies from a decade ago, the researcher notes, and are rapidly wearing out. The US Navy, which had nearly 600 ships in the late 1980s, on average employed only 15% of the fleet. Today, with fewer than 300 ships, the U.S. Navy uses more than 35% to complete its missions, “being drawn into a deadly crater”. Significant wear and tear on ships increases the cost of their maintenance, repair and modernisation, while Beijing does not have such a problem.

China is far ahead of the United States in building and commissioning new ships, Berube writes.

“To provide perspective, from Pearl Harbour to the surrender of Japan was 1,375 days. As of Nov. 29, 2021, it has been 1,885 days since Zumwalt was commissioned and 1,601 days since Ford was commissioned and neither has deployed,” the expert notes.

The reasons for the decline and growing lag of the US Navy from the Chinese fleet, Berube believes, are structural in nature. First of all, this is the lack of an achievable strategy and “belief in its own marketing”. For example, Berube writes, speaking in June before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said: “Certainly we have the most capable and dominant navy in the world, and it will continue to be so going forward.”

“While the secretary’s support of the Navy is laudable, this statement is contrary to quantifiable trends and the future based on the continuing shipbuilding gap,” said the scientist, giving his own assessment of the situation, emphasising that it is necessary to dispel the myth that “the Chinese Navy is rising” – because it has already risen.

Thanks to its vision and determination, China has overtaken the United States in terms of its shipbuilding industrial base, merchant fleet and navy, Berube writes. While China has built up a strong industrial base in shipbuilding, the United States has long lost its leadership, and Washington’s prospects look very bleak.

Berube calls for an early restructuring of the entire approach to fleet construction, moving beyond the constant conflict between lobbyists of different corporations and ending the self-deception that has already ” led to Afghanistan”.

“Otherwise, nearly two centuries after de Tocqueville’s work, another observer may write that America was born to rule the seas, matured in World War II and the Cold War, but grew old, grey, tired, and treated with indifference by its national family in the 21st century. Instead, it was China’s time to rule the seas,” sums up the analyst.

In addition to purely naval bleak prospects, in the relatively near future, according to American experts, China will overtake the United States in the economy as a whole.

A year ago, the BBC published material that later became the basis for hundreds of reprints and variations. The main message of the text was that China will overtake the United States and become the world’s largest economy by 2028 – five years earlier than previously predicted. This is the conclusion of the British Center for Economic and Business Research (CEBR).

The report says that after a “strong post-pandemic rebound in 2021”, the US economy will grow at about 1.9% annually between 2022-24, and then slow to 1.6% in subsequent years. In contrast, the Chinese economy is expected to grow 5.7% per year through 2025 and 4.5% per year from 2026-2030. China’s share of the global economy has grown from just 3.6% in 2000 to 17.8% now, and the country will become a “high-income economy” by 2023, the report says.

However, some Asian analysts – mainly representing China’s traditional economic competitors in the region, Japan and South Korea – believe that it is still not in 2028, but in 2033. One way or another, without a sharp change in paradigm and mode of action, China’s leadership over the United States is inevitable in 6-10 years – and this leadership will be dominant, not only economically, but also militarily, as well as technologically.

A December article in The Wall Street Journal cites a wide range of opinions from CIA Director William Burns to experts at the Harvard Belfer Center. Opinions boil down to the fact that “China has made incredible leaps” in each of the fundamental technologies of the 21st century-artificial intelligence, semiconductors, 5G wireless network, quantum computer science, biotechnology and green energy, and may soon become a world leader. And in some areas, it has already become so.

In 2020, China produced 50% of the world’s computers and mobile phones; the US produced only 6%. China produces 70 solar panels for each made in the United States, sells four times as many electric vehicles, and has nine times as many 5G base stations, with network speeds five times faster than their American counterparts.

The National Security Commission’s AI report, released in spring 2021, warns that China is poised to overtake the United States as the world leader in AI by 2030. US-born students earn roughly the same number of doctorates in AI-related fields each year as they did in 1990, while China is on track to earn twice as many doctorates in science, technology, and mathematics as the U.S. does by 2025. The Harvard report adds that China is now clearly outperforming the US in practical applications of artificial intelligence, including facial recognition, voice recognition, and financial technology.

The only thing in which the United States is still ahead is semiconductors, writes the WSJ. But China may soon catch up in two important areas: semiconductor manufacturing and microchip development. China’s semiconductor production has surpassed that of the US: its share of global production has grown to 15% from less than 1% in 1990, while the US’ share has fallen from 37% to 12%.

From a military, economic, and technological point of view, China will overtake the United States no later than 2033. This may be the reason for the obvious rush to create a new military-political block AUKUS, as well as its orientation towards “sea power”.

But what exactly can AUKUS do for China?

“String of pearls” on a bottle neck

Sea control is critical for China. Despite large-scale programs to stimulate domestic demand, China’s economy, whose growth is so feared by the United States, remains export-oriented in the near future. Taking into account the geographical location of the People’s Republic of China, the lion’s share of transportation of exported goods and energy resources entering China is carried out by sea. This circumstance makes the strengthening of maritime capabilities inevitable for any player who wants to have a significant impact on China’s economic development.

China’s maritime trade has one key point – the Malacca Strait. It is actually a long channel, 805 kilometres long and 40 to 2.5 kilometres wide, through which more than 90,000 ships pass per year, which is about a quarter of the world’s maritime traffic. And, most importantly, 90% of oil supplies by sea to Southeast Asia, mainly in the direction of China, go through the strait. In absolute terms, about 18 million barrels of oil are transported through the Strait daily, of which 10 go to China, accounting for more than 80% of Beijing’s offshore oil imports.

The Malacca Strait also provides about 60-70% of China’s foreign trade. It is important to note that for large vessels (such as container ships, tankers, and gas carriers), there is little alternative to Malacca Strait. There is the Sunda Strait, but in some places its depth is 20 meters.

According to forecasts, by 2025, about 140,000 ships will have to pass through the Malacca Strait, while its maximum capacity does not exceed 120,000. Accordingly, after reaching the limit of opportunities, for further growth of the Chinese economy, additional ways of exporting goods and receiving energy resources will be needed.

The Chinese Government is taking a number of measures in this direction. We are talking about the well-known “New Silk Road” project, which enhances rail transit opportunities from China and back through the territory of Eurasia, as well as the creation of options for sea routes outside the Malacca Strait.

In particular, it is planned to build a Thai Canal across the Kra Isthmus in the south of Thailand. The canal, which is up to 100 kilometres long, will cost $25 billion and require the involvement of about 30,000 workers over 10 years. Even before the Northern Sea Route has become a fully-fledged route, China is probing the ground for access to this completely independent line from potential US actions.

But even if there are fully-fledged alternatives to the Malacca Strait, its importance for China will remain. Given the above, it is clear that China is paying attention to guaranteeing free movement through the Malacca Strait for at least the next decade.

Even the predecessor of today’s Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao, identified getting out of the “trap” of the Malacca Canal as the most important state task.

Since 2014, the modernisation of Chinese military infrastructure on the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea has begun – despite the fact that Vietnam and Taiwan also lay claim to the islands. In March 2019, China signed a contract for the purchase of 24 new Su-35 fighter jets from Russia, the base of which should be the new Air Force bases controlling the South China Sea region.

For its part, the United States has consistently taken steps to build up its combat capabilities in this geographical area sensitive for China. In this sense, AUKUS has become a formalisation of a military-political concept, the implementation of which began quite a long time ago. So, the United States secured Singapore’s consent to use the Changi naval base, which allows to control the Malacca Strait.

One of the projects developed by China to neutralise this threat was the “string of pearls” concept, which involves the creation of a chain of ports and military bases on the territory of China-friendly countries on the northern coast of the Indian Ocean. This is a serious project that deserves separate consideration: suffice it to say that Myanmar should become the largest “pearl” – it is not by chance that coups d’etat on the territory of this state receive directly opposite assessments from Beijing and Washington.

Given the theoretical task of the naval blockade of the Malacca Strait, which should be a sensitive blow to the Chinese economy, the statements of US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the boats will not carry nuclear weapons, but will only be equipped with “conventional” nuclear propulsion systems may well be true.

The blockade implies, first of all, such qualities of the submarine as significant energy autonomy and the availability of sufficient means to counter ships and vessels – there is really no absolute need to arm such submarines with nuclear strike weapons.

AUKUS and Russia

Among the possible effects that the creation of AUKUS will have on relations between Russia and the United States (as well as NATO, as Washington’s alter ego), conditionally positive ones are sometimes mentioned. For example, the fact that the reorientation of the Anglo-Saxon world, which is the objective military core of NATO, to the South China Sea means an automatic weakening of the bloc on the Russian borders.

However, the creation of AUKUS, like any new military-political bloc, has a political dimension in addition to the military side of the issue. First of all, Russia will have to engage in a complex diplomatic game, trying to preserve the partnership relations created over the years with China, India, Pakistan and other countries that will somehow be involved in the scope of AUKUS. And, as a rule, they will be separated on different sides of the barricades, including at the expense of existing agreements.

India is part of the QUAD, an informal security agreement between the United States, Australia, India and Japan. The relations of all these countries with China, although they differ in intensity, are in the negative “zone of the spectrum”, which makes India’s cooperation with AUKUS virtually predetermined. The Indian and Chinese militaries have already been involved in a direct clash in the highlands of the Himalayas. Although the parties did not use firearms, the incident resulted in numerous casualties.

After AUKUS fully develops its organisational structure and conceptual understanding of further actions in the designated 18 months, if India is involved in the AUKUS orbit, we can expect a deterioration in relations between India and Pakistan, which is in solidarity with China on many issues, and also has its own tensions with India, not necessarily limited to Kashmir.

It is also worth remembering that the development of such areas as artificial intelligence, cybernetics, quantum technologies and non-submarine underwater technologies for military purposes were mentioned at the briefing after the announcement of AUKUS, in addition to submarines. The latter refers to various underwater drones.

In other words, the creation of AUKUS will at least dramatically exacerbate the existing inter-state contradictions in the region, give an impetus to a regional arms race, and most likely affect a significant part of world trade. These are just the most obvious consequences.

In the first half of 2023, AUKUS should already be formed as a military-political bloc with sufficient, at least conceptually, information, analytical and personnel content, and will be ready to realise this potential. This means that in 2022, the members of the bloc and their satellites must carry out a series of actions that will inevitably affect the interests of the Russian Federation and our friendly states, which will certainly create significant challenges for Russia and require us to step up our role as a mediator state.

 

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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