France’s angry reaction to Australia’s cancellation of its $80 billion submarines-provisioning deal and its replacement with another with the US and UK has taken centre stage in international circles recently.
But that is not where attention should be focused. The coming together of Australia, the UK and the US as part of the so-called AUKUS deal transcends economic and even defence considerations. It ushers in strategic changes that will prove highly consequential in the coming years.
First, AUKUS marks a fundamental change in the US strategic posture in the face of China’s expansion out of its immediate sphere.
It has been clear for at least a decade that the US has been assessing how to solve a dilemma – how to constrain China’s expansion without limiting its courses of action so that a collision between the old superpower and the rising one becomes inevitable. The solution that the US has adopted over the past decade has been to enhance American capabilities in its existing bases in the region without introducing new mechanisms in its military operations.
Now, however, the US is changing both its operating mechanisms and its geographical footprint in Asia.
Unlike the deal that Australia had with France, AUKUS is anchored on nuclear-powered technology. This technology, according to experts, enables much wider and longer maritime patrols, which mean that Australian (or AUKUS member) submarines will have much stronger capabilities to restrict the operations of the Chinese navy in the Pacific.
This leads to the geographical point. For several years now, China’s main military objective has been to deter the US, particularly its navy, from operating in China’s maritime neighbourhood. This increases Chinese leverage when it comes to Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula and is a sign of China’s increasing dominium over its immediate neighbourhood. So far, the US has respected that objective, in practice if not always in rhetoric.
But the maritime border of East Asia south to the meeting between the Pacific and Indian Oceans is something else. With AUKUS, the US has begun to actively widen its presence in this large area that is exactly where China has been building its presence, not least through maritime routes linked to its Belt and Road Initiative.
The geographical point is not only deliberate, but it has also been in the making for some time. With the dilution of the US military presence in the Middle East, lessening capabilities in Western Europe, shifting of resources to East Asia, withdrawal from Afghanistan and now AUKUS, the US has gradually been building a much stronger presence in the Pacific and in areas outside its traditional centres in East Asia.
Second, AUKUS will result in rearranging the seats within the Western alliance.
AUKUS builds on close military cooperation between the US, UK and Australia, which are members of the “Five Eyes,” the most powerful intelligence-gathering and assessment coalition in the world. Plus, the three countries have many cultural and societal connections.
AUKUS, however, puts Europe in a difficult position. On the one hand, Europe’s defence agreements and cultural inclinations pull it close to the US. But on the other, most European countries see major benefits in having healthy relations with China.
Europe also sees itself as a major global power that must have a say in the most important strategic dossiers in the world. And nothing is more strategic these days than the West’s relationship with China. To some extent, this explains the intensity of France’s anger at the way its deal was scrapped.
However, the anger is subsiding, and cold calculations are now replacing raw emotion. Europe, including France, is beginning to negotiate with the US so that the Western alliance does not become an Anglo-Saxon-led club. In addition, Europe needs the US to appreciate that Europe ought to have different postures towards China, from the assertive to the accommodating, depending on the context.
However, China, and likely also Russia, will see opportunities in Europe’s deliberations vis-à-vis America’s new strategy. The result will likely be different alignments within the Western alliance, with varying degrees of closeness to the US in its confrontation with China.
AUKUS is one feature of an intense New Cold War, and these military and political considerations are the early dynamics of the nascent Cold War between the US and China, which will be more intense than the previous one.
China has internalised the lessons of the first Cold War from the 1950s to the 1980s, including the perils of over-cautiousness (a feature many Chinese and Russian strategists ascribe to the former Soviet Union) and the impossibility of sustaining a strategic standoff over many years.
On the other hand, the US has tasted for over three decades now the seductive wine of being the world’s sole superpower, and a number of American economic power-centres (especially in technology and finance) have reaped immense benefits from this hegemony. As a result, both the US and China will be much more assertive in the approaching New Cold War than the US and the Soviet Union were in the previous one.
Internal challenges in both countries also exacerbate the war’s intensity. China today is far from following the classic communist model of the previous Cold War, and its current economic and political model is much more complex than the simplistic designation of “state-led capitalism.”
For several decades, China has been evolving a new system of social development that is unprecedented in human history in its simultaneous objectives of internal political stability, major economic betterment for colossal societal segments, and bringing large parts of the world into economic integration with, and often reliance upon, that system.
Yet, the current Chinese model – and behind it the Chinese Communist Party – is facing acute internal challenges that threaten not sudden collapse in the way the Soviet Union earlier crumbled, but the eruption of internal volcanoes of anger that could consume the energy of China’s leadership and that could, under certain challenging circumstances, lead it to use highly assertive measures internally as well as in its immediate neighbourhood.
Nothing in international relations would be more dangerous than an angry, threatened China that feels that its decades of hard work and patience are not yielding what it sees as its historic rights.
The US model has also changed dramatically since the end of the first Cold War. It has become simultaneously more appealing as well as more problematic. Innovation engendered, nurtured and spread within and because of the US socio-economic model has enabled some of the most impressive leaps in human history in technology and therefore in living standards to take place over recent decades. But there have also been accumulating failures in the US system that have created enormous inequalities and have convinced many in the US (and in other parts of the West as well) that the system is rigged towards the rich and powerful.
These failures have appeared ever more blatant over the past 15 years. Now they are slowly eroding the foundations of liberalism, the bedrock of the US model in the previous Cold War.
Such problems make both the US and China more vulnerable to internal shocks and less confident about their capabilities vis-à-vis the other. This will likely make the New Cold War a naked power-grab and race for interests and one stripped of the intellectual content and moral façade that characterised the previous one.
AUKUS has grabbed the world’s attention because it ticks interesting boxes: colossal arms deals, military alliances and diplomatic crises. In reality, it is important because it has lifted the veil on dynamics that are shaping the most consequential international relations dossier in the world today and in the immediate future.
Understanding these dynamics opens vistas onto the intense New Cold War that is only just beginning.
* The writer is the author of Islamisim: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.