Why AUKUS is good to keep China at bay in Indo-Pacific
New Delhi Paris is aggrieved over Australia nullifying a $59 billion air independent propulsion (AIP) submarine deal and opting for nuclear-powered conventional weapon attack (SSN) submarines under the AUKUS pact with the US and the UK signed in September last year.
While France may have legitimate reasons for being upset with Australia for reneging on the submarine deal, the emerging picture in Indo-Pacific clearly shows that AIP submarines would have been a half-measure in containing a belligerent China under President Xi Jinping. Given the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region and the South China Sea in particular, the Australian choice of an SSN is the better option in tackling a rapidly growing PLA Navy and the Chinese intermediate range ballistic missile arsenal.
The state of strategic play is such that India also has no choice but to go for long-range nuclear-powered submarines and delivery platforms as it is only a matter of time that the Chinese carrier force will be patrolling the Indian Ocean. With two nuclear submarines already operational and the third one a work in progress, India is building leverage in case the PLA decides to deploy strong-arm tactics on the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control (LAC), as it did in May 2020.
If one overlooks the noise over Australia scuttling the French submarine deal, it is not very difficult to understand why Canberra decided the nuclear option, as it is a deterrent to China’s Taiwan ambitions. The signing of a security pact between Japan and Australia, once World War II adversaries, with the bottom line on convergence in the Indo-Pacific is also a step in the direction to ask China to mend its aggression. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the agreement “will underpin greater and more complex practical engagement between the Australian Defence Force and the Japanese Self-Defence Forces”. Juxtapose the new security pact with AUKUS and Quad and the larger picture emerges on the Indo-Pacific with India having a logistics agreement with all the Quad partners.
Rather than viewing AUKUS from a French commercial perspective, the Australian nuclear-powered conventional attack submarines will be an answer to the massive deployment of DF-21 and DF-26 series of ballistic missiles by the PLA on the Chinese east coast to prevent US aircraft carriers from entering the South China Sea in the worst case scenario over Taiwan. Given the range of these ballistic missiles, the US aircraft carrier force will have to operate outside the first chain of islands after China, or else be in the cross-hairs of these PLA delivery platforms. While the US and Russia were bound by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty since 1987, before its suspension in 2019, the PLA has built a massive intermediate range ballistic missile arsenal with its propaganda media nick-naming the DF-21 and DF-26 as carrier killer and Guam killer weapons.
With the advent of Australian nuclear submarines, the Chinese missile sites on the east coast will be threatened by the sub-surface attack platforms which can stay under water for months together in the South China Sea or the Indo-Pacific. The fact is that the AUKUS is a game-changer for the Indo-Pacific as even the latest AIP diesel submarines must surface, in effect betraying their positions, in weeks for charging their batteries. Thus, from a strategic perspective, the Australian nuclear attack submarines with conventional ballistic missiles as deterrents will allow US aircraft carriers to operate between the Chinese coast and the first island chain and also enforce laws of the seas and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. As China is threatening Taiwan on a daily basis by breaching its air defence identification zone, it is for the US to speed up the SSN production for Australia as time is running out for Taipei and the security of the Indo-Pacific.