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On 15 September 2021 Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US President Joseph Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a joint statement announcing the creation of an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” called AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States).

The most significant part of the agreement is for the three countries to begin consultations to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered (not armed) submarines. 

The statement also announces plans for further collaboration to “enhance our joint capabilities and interoperability.” These will initially focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities.

The three countries said the agreement “will help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”

What does it mean for the UK?

AUKUS reflects the UK’s intention to tilt to the Indo-Pacific, as outlined in the Integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. The tilt is necessary, the Government says, because the region is “critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs the partnership demonstrates “Britain’s generational commitment to the security of the Indo-Pacific” and how the UK can help Australia “preserve regional stability.” 

The UK National Security Advisor, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, remarking on the submarine element of the partnership, said it is “perhaps the most significant capability collaboration anywhere in the world in the past six decades.

AUKUS comes with potentially lucrative defence and security opportunities for UK industry not just in submarine build but in the other areas mentioned in the joint statement, of cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. 

However, the move has raised some concerns. Discussing the agreement in the House, MPs questioned whether the tilt to the Indo-Pacific risks focusing attention away from the security needs of the Euro-Atlantic. Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, said: “Whatever the merits of an Indo-Pacific tilt, maintaining security in Europe must remain our primary objective.”

Responding to concerns about China’s response, the Prime Minister said the partnership “is not intended to be adversarial towards any other power.” Members will discuss AUKUS’ impact on Anglo-Chinese relations in a Westminster Hall debate on 20 October 2021.

The Library discusses the defence aspects of the tilt to the Indo-Pacific in Integrated Review 2021: The defence tilt to the Indo-Pacific, CBP9217.

International reaction

The announcement was unexpected. Initial reaction was therefore just as much focused at surprise about the announcement as it was about the content of the agreement.

Australia’s Prime Minister said one of the drivers for the agreement was the growing security challenges in Indo-Pacific.   

However, there has been mixed reaction from the region, with some believing it will help address the military imbalance against China, while others fear it could spark an arms race or heighten the risk of conflict. And while the submarines are to be nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed, the agreement has prompted much discussion of the effect it will have on nuclear non-proliferation efforts.

What does it mean for non-proliferation?

The AUKUS submarine deal is concerned solely with naval nuclear propulsion. It does not involve the transfer of nuclear weapons to Australia. As such, AUKUS does not contravene the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Nor does it contravene the or the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty.  New Zealand, which is a signatory to that treaty and has a long-standing anti-nuclear stance, has already stated that Australia’s new nuclear submarines would not be permitted in its territorial waters.

While the AUKUS deal does not contravene any treaty obligations, there are concerns that the deal sets a bad precedent for nuclear non-proliferation efforts more broadly, although opinions among experts differ.

The greatest concern is that the deal creates a precedent that the US, in particular, will struggle to prevent from “proliferating out of control around the world.”

Further reading

A collection of articles discussing AUKUS and its implications can be found in the briefing paper.

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