On Sept. 15, 2021, President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new defense pact among the three countries to bolster our existing alliance in the Indo-Pacific region. The histories of our three nations are intertwined, and so are our destinies — for Australia, the U.K., the United States, and for our allies, the AUKUS alliance represents a firm and deliberate move strengthen the international rule of law, and maintain the post-World War II international order that has led to unprecedented peace and prosperity worldwide.
Although some seemed caught off guard by the development, all three countries have longstanding ties, and a joint presence in that part of the world dating back even before World War II. For example, after Pearl Harbor in 1942, when Japanese forces were able to advance in the South Pacific with little resistance, the northwestern Australian city of Darwin was devastated by waves of Japanese bombers. To this day, the Battle of Darwin is seared into the memory in Australia — a reminder of its vulnerability to external threats. Later that year, the U.S. Navy blunted Japan’s designs on Australia in the Battle of the Cora Sea, inflicting heavy losses on Japan’s fleet, enough to deter any further attacks on that continent for rest of the war.
The gratitude of Australia to the American people for that single-handed save still resonates to this day. In the wake of the war, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States entered into a security agreement known as ANZUS, which just celebrated its 75.th anniversary of maintaining close ties amongst our navies and air forces. ANZUS isn’t just a paper commitment. Starting in 2011, 2,500 U.S. Marines have been deployed to Darwin on a steady basis, joining the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force to reassert freedom of navigation and overflight. The three ANZUS countries, along with Canada and the United Kingdom, also continue to operate the “Five Eyes” — an intelligence sharing alliance that goes back to the “code breakers” WWII collaboration in 1941.
When AUKUS was announced, our three nations made it crystal clear that that the intent of the agreement is to strengthen international rule of law, which has been the backbone of 75 years of astonishing prosperity and comparative peace in the Pacific after the most destructive conflict in human history. Freedom of navigation and overflight, lawful sharing of natural resources such as fishing and mineral rights, and respect for the sovereignty of nation-states have been the keys to avoiding a repeat of the state-sponsored coercion and violence of the 1930s and 40s. Unfortunately, China’s relentless “island building” in international waters, and the immediate militarization of those land masses — along with the astonishing buildup of the Chinese Navy and Coast Guard in the last decade and their coercive actions — has dangerously changed the accepted norms for lawfully sharing the “global commons” of the air and sea.
And that’s not neo- Cold War saber rattling. In 2016, the United Nations Law of the Sea Tribunal unanimously rejected China’s preposterous claims to territorial control of the vast bulk of the South China Sea as breach of international law. It also refused to recognize China’s man-made islands as sovereign territory. China has vocally dismissed the ruling since then, and has brazenly escalated its aggressive behavior that the U.N. tribunal specifically condemned, most notably fortifying the man-made “islands”.
In 2016, Australia embarked on recapitalization of its aging Collins-class diesel-electric submarine fleet, which has been called on to operate at higher and higher levels of tempo in recent years. It contracted with the French Naval Group to build a new class of diesel-electric Barracuda submarines, which at the time seemed adequate. With the fast-changing threat in the region, however, and the “tyranny of distance” in the Pacific, Australia’s decision to opt out of diesel-electric in favor of nuclear propulsion is understandable. The undersea range of a nuclear submarine far surpasses diesel-electric, and given China’s highly advanced missile technology, avoiding any need for a sub to surface will greatly reduce the risk of detection. This the reality of the situation — not a knock on the French Navy. As Prime Minister Morrison and President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act: a bill long overdue MORE clearly stated, the French Navy is a valued partner in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and AUKUS isn’t a security agreement that inherently excludes other allies. Instead, it’s one of many tools for like-minded allies to use in defense of the international rule of law.
It’s also important to note that the AUKUS partners explicitly confirmed that the agreement doesn’t change Australia’s prohibition on nuclear weapons. The new submarine pact only opens the door to sharing nuclear propulsion technology—the submarines built by Australia will carry conventional deterrents only. As the Congressional Research Office opined in 1989, the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) “…does not prohibit non-nuclear weapon parties from using nuclear material for non-proscribed (i.e. non-explosive) military purposes, such as naval propulsion.” Australia’s diligent compliance with the NPT won’t change because of AUKUS.
Now that the agreement is in hand, the focus shifts to implementation, starting with an 18-month review of the logistics on propulsion sharing. Such a transfer last occurred in 1958 with the U.K. submarine force, and that year Congress amended the McMahon Act (named after Connecticut Sen. Brien McMahon) to permit such sharing. This a big undertaking, but the bipartisan meetings between U.S. House leadership and Prime Ministers Morrison and Johnson the week of Sept. 20 to introduce the congressional branch of U.S. government to this new agreement were very successful.
Make no mistake, the solidarity of AUKUS nations, along with other democratic stakeholders in the region, is not intended to enflame rising tensions. Rather, it will help restore the peaceful co-existence that has reigned in the Indo-Pacific for 75 years. The autocrats should take heed.
Rep. Courtney is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, which oversees all U.S. Navy shipbuilding. Courtney is also the Co-Chair of the bipartisan Friends of Australia Caucus.