The acronym AUKUS, when you try to pronounce it, sounds like some weird wild animal, an AUKUS. The initials stand for Australia, U.K., U.S., but to the North Koreans and their Chinese masters, they might as well spell the exotic name of one of those strange beasts that only inhabit Australia. Maybe a new breed of kangaroo or wombat with particularly sharp claws and mean teeth, poised to spring and strangle and tear apart enemies near and far.
Actually, AUKUS is a brand new alliance whose first dividend should be a nuclear submarine for the Australian navy, reliant on American and British technology, just the thing for scaring the Chinese in the South China Sea and intimidating a few others, too. Surely North Korea sees it that way, warning darkly but vaguely of “extremely undesirable and dangerous acts which will upset the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region and trigger off a chain of nuclear arms race.”
Hang on, what are the North Koreans getting so worked up about? It’s not likely this submarine will be sniffing around the waters off the Korean peninsula, and what “strategic balance” do they mean?
The first answer is North Korea is so beholden to China that it’s a good idea to put on a show of sticking up for the Chinese even though the AUKUS beast poses no real threat to the North. As for “strategic balance,” since when have the North Koreans shown signs of respecting an equilibrium with its neighbor to the South while building up their stockpile of nuclear weapons along with the missiles to send them to targets anywhere in northeast Asia, meaning Japan and South Korea, and also long-range models capable theoretically of reaching the U.S.?
The word “nuclear” is cause for alarm, but this submarine won’t be hefting nuclear weapons, at least for the foreseeable future. Australia is not yet a nuclear power, and the Americans and Brits are not talking about providing them with nuclear warheads, not yet. One more nuclear submarine in the southern hemisphere, in addition to the American versions, will be significant but not a game-changer, not right away.
No question, though, the stakes are rising as are the chances for catastrophe. Experts to whom I’ve talked seem convinced China will soon lose patience and fight to recover Taiwan, the island province that’s functioned as an independent state ever since Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated forces retreated there as Mao’s Red Army took over the mainland in 1949. Those experts predict the Chinese will swarm across the Taiwan or Formosa Straits within 10 years, maybe sooner.
But sensational predictions are risky. A couple of considerations weigh against China going to war for Taiwan. One is China reaps enormous wealth from its incredibly favorable balance of trade with the U.S., and they would risk losing it all if the U.S. sided with Taiwan in an armed showdown. Another is that invading Taiwan would trigger a terrific response from Japan, which would drop all inhibitions and constraints against engaging in foreign wars and decide it had to fight for Taiwan, which it ruled from victory over China in 1895 until defeat in the Pacific War in 1945.
The Australian nuclear-powered submarine might stay out of the fray for Taiwan but pose a threat against China elsewhere. The Korean peninsula, North and South, would not be immune. South Korea might try to remain relatively neutral, but that would be difficult as long as the U.S. maintained forces in the South. North Korea could then exploit differences between Americans and South Koreans all in keeping with its own alliance with China.
The scenarios are endless. It’s quite possible war in the South China Sea and/or Taiwan could spread into the regional conflagration that always hovers on the horizon. But it’s also possible that nothing will happen other than still more rhetoric. There’s no doubt, though, that the AUKUS alliance opens a new chapter in the history of military relationships in the region.
Does anyone remember SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization that existed until after the Communist victory over the U.S.-backed regime in Vietnam in 1975? Australia, the U.K., and U.S. were all stalwart members. France and Pakistan too – and now France is furious over Australia’s cancellation of a deal for non-nuclear submarines while Pakistan, a nuclear power, harbors the Taliban and cozies up to China. Who would have predicted such twists and turns when the papers forming SEATO were signed in Manila, capital of another ambivalent American ally, 66 years ago?