UKUS: New faultline in transatlantic relations | By Huma Baqai
By News desk -January 23, 2022


THE tensions between US and EU are not new. The Iraq War had famously divided the Atlantic partners; but previous fallouts were over policy issues and damage control worked.

However today, the very concept and value of the ‘transatlantic Alliance’ is being questioned.

Donald Trump was the first US President to undermine the alliance with EU; he had introduced/injected conditionality and uncertainty into NATO. Many in the US and EU had hoped that the disagreements will disappear once Trump leaves office. However, the transatlantic relations continue to be at a low.

From the AUKUS deal to Iran nuclear negotiations, to climate change and to relations with China, the two sides of the Atlantic disagree: is the West split for real?

Biden’s elections may have reinvigorated Atlanticism, however the domestic foundations of US internationalism have weakened considerably. America has now what many call a “strategic preoccupation” with China.

This is largely a direct result of China’s strategic ambitions, it’s transnational Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and its growing global reach. The Atlantic Alliance does not enjoy the material and ideological dominance it once had, and thus it must adapt its strategic priorities accordingly.

The new three-way strategic defence alliance titled ‘AUKUS’ between Australia, the UK and US has sidelined France, prompting Paris to recall its ambassador to the US for the first time in the 243 year long alliance between the two nations.

This is perhaps a reality check about combating 21st century challenges. Most obvious being that the US does not bet on Europe to take forward its Indo-Pacific policy.

Also, that despite the subtle revival of QUAD, it does not really consider its allies as “force multipliers” in general and India as a “net security provider” in particular. AUKUS also signalled to Europe that US does not perceive it as a global player to deepen its commitment with, at least in the Indo-Pacific. The focus of US foreign policy is the Pacific, and not the Atlantic.

While there is a bipartisan consensus over hardening of attitudes towards Beijing, Europeans are mindful of their growing economic equities and will remain reluctant to choose between their security relations with the US and growing trade and investment relations with China, thus further distancing on a policy issue with Washington.

The policy paper EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific plays down confrontation with China. This happened in the wake of AUKUS which entails Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines from the US and the cancellation of a pending order to buy French submarines which cost 48.5 billion pounds.

Australia ended the contract given to France in 2016 to build 12 diesel electric-powered submarines to replace its existing Collins submarine fleet.

AUKUS is largely to build a class of nuclear propelled submarines but more importantly to work together in the Indo-Pacific region, to counter the rise of China. The deal also marks the first time ever the US has shared nuclear propulsion technology with an ally apart from the UK. France is very angry at this.

Back in 2016, France had described the deal with Australia as the deal of the century. The French Foreign Minister, Jean Yues Le Drian, called the deal between USA and Australia as “a stab in the back” for France.

China has also responded very strongly to this; it is now facing a powerful new defence alliance in the Indo-Pacific region. Relations between the three allies and China were not on a very good footing to begin with.

Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson said, AUKUS was indicative of the fact that the three countries were in the grip of an “obsolete Cold War zero sum mentality a narrow-minded geopolitical concept” and that they should “respect regional people’s aspirations […] otherwise they will only end up hurting their own interests.”

The joint statement by the leaders of the AUKUS countries talks of a commitment to freedom, human dignity, rule of law, respect for sovereignty and a peaceful fellowship of nations, however, China views it differently, and perceives it as a “danger,” as enumerated by Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wáng Yì in a list of “five harms to the region” caused by AUKUS, which he said may: 1. Trigger the risk of nuclear proliferation. 2. Induce a new round of arms race. 3. Undermine regional prosperity and stability 4. Sabotage the building of a nuclear-free zone in Southeast Asia. 5. Lead to the resurgence of the Cold War mentality.

Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute, in Australia sums it up nicely where he writes that while previously there was a reason to question whether Washington really desired a new “Cold War” with China, “this announcement is significant evidence that it is [US] prepared to take such a momentous step.”

Both former Prime Minister of Australia Paul Keating and the realist scholar Hugh White are of the opinion that in exchange for equipping Australia with nuclear submarines the US will expect greater Australian involvement in its efforts to contain China, up to and including participation in future conflicts with China.

No doubt China has condemned the agreement as “extremely irresponsible.” The deal shows that EU and UK are willing to cross the rub icon of exporting nuclear technology to a non-nuclear powered nation, making this partnership both unique and formidable.

As per a US official the technology due to be transferred to Australia is extremely sensitive. It’s an exception in the US policy in many respects.

It’s also viewed as a “one-off”. Historically, Washington had shared nuclear propulsion technology only once before with Britain in 1958. One wonders how big a threat is China to US interests, for it to go to such lengths to create such a deterrence. It’s just not this, the US has been investing heavily in partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, India and Vietnam.

The AUKUS deal should also be a wakeup call for India. The transfer of technology it has expected from the US, in spite of bilateral ties that have grown in warmth and closeness did not happen.

—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

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