China’s answer to Aukus alliance? More rhetoric, more intimidation tactics and more weapons
- A core strategy, say military experts, is to raise the cost of US defence of Taiwan by consolidating the Chinese grip over contested South China Sea islands
- Despite Beijing's criticism of new or revived American coalitions, its own belligerence has played a big role in moving Western and Asian allies closer together
In response to a new Anglo-Saxon military alliance and more US-designed nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific, Beijing will likely step up efforts to avoid encirclement and expand its own nuclear submarine fleet, according to current and former officials and military experts.
The defence build-up on both sides comes amid louder, if still relatively faint, drums of war around Taiwan, lending greater immediacy to the new alliance and spotlighting broader Chinese, US and allied regional defence strategies.
In September, Australia, the United Kingdom and the US (Aukus) announced an alliance involving submarines and a range of cutting-edge military technologies. Simultaneously, Canberra shelved a US$66 billion French diesel submarine deal in favour of some eight US nuclear-powered submarines, angering Paris.
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"Chinese strategy has tried to make geography a virtue, particularly with Taiwan," said Thomas Mahnken, president of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank. "But it's also true that China's access to the broader Pacific Ocean is hemmed in by archipelagos."
"With Aukus, the three governments have agreed," said Mahnken, a former senior Pentagon official. "Now it's incumbent on them to make it work."
As Congress and the administration have elevated support for Taiwan, capped by a Republican congressional visit this month, Beijing has stepped up its rhetoric and intimidation tactics, holding combat readiness drills in waters abutting Taiwan and sending scores of J-16 fighters, H-6 long-range bombers, anti-submarine and surveillance aircraft into Taiwan's air defence zone.
"China is sending the signal: if you want to get involved in Taiwan, be aware of the threat and of our deterrents," said Sourabh Gupta, a fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies.
With US and Chinese hardliners elevating the risk of unforeseen conflict, presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping held a long-delayed virtual summit last Monday, with Taiwan and nuclear arms control among the topics discussed.
Kurt Campbell, White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, said on Friday that Aukus was evolving, with former Pentagon official James Miller assigned to work out details and design a strategic road map over the next 18 months. The initiative could see more European partners join the alliance in coming years and experienced British sailors serve on Australian vessels, he added.
"The strategic rationale is just unassailable," Campbell said.
Military experts say core to China's strategy - and answer to Aukus - is to further raise the cost of any US defence of Taiwan by consolidating its grip over contested South China Sea islands; deploying more aircraft carriers; honing hypersonic weapons; and adding inland missile sites to expand its defence perimeter.
More advanced Dong Feng 26 and Hong Niao 3 missiles and nuclear-capable H-6 bombers could pressure US forces in Guam and Okinawa into pulling back to Hawaii and the US mainland, analysts said, eventually putting US East Coast targets at risk.
And in response to mounting underwater threats, the PLA is installing more seabed censors in the South China Sea to track enemy submarines and improving sonar systems aboard its Type 55 stealth guided missile destroyers, said Sidharth Kaushal, a sea power fellow with the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
It may also accelerate construction of its latest Class 095 nuclear submarines to replace older Shang-class counterparts, both types generally noisier and less capable than their US or Russian counterparts, he added.
China is currently building a nuclear-powered submarine every 15 months, and its current fleet of around 66 diesel and nuclear underwater vessels is expected to rise to 76 by 2030, according to the US Office of Naval Intelligence.
Closer ties between Beijing and Moscow are another factor. The authoritarian partners have combined on a joint ballistic missile early warning system for China. But long-standing distrust remains, there is little evidence of interoperability in recent joint exercises and Moscow is wary of selling its best nuclear submarines, experts said.
"Russia is cognisant that, if they sell something to China, it will be reverse-engineered," said Kaushal. "I think the Russians will keep their crown jewels as far from China as they can."
Military experts say Aukus and Canberra's nuclear submarine purchase is reconfiguring the strategic landscape.
Even as China criticises US hegemonic ambitions, its own belligerence is nudging Western and Asian allies closer together. This includes its crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, border fights with India, "economic blackmail" of Australia and aggressive wolf warrior diplomacy.
"Its last two years have been a master class in how to lose friends and fail to influence people," said Kerry Brown, Chinese studies professor at King's College, London, in a Chatham House report. "Despite this, it will not change the reality that China is, and will continue to be, the great rising power of the region, and [Aukus] is a testament to that.
"The era of the US - jealously guarding its security sovereignty - is over. It now needs to face China in concert with others."
The alliance promises benefits to each partner. Australia, whose Collins-class diesel submarines are outdated, bolsters its defences. The US leverages its military power helped by an ally's wallet. And Britain can constrain without directly confronting China in an increasingly contested region.
While much of the focus has been on the submarines, more significant over time may be Aukus's plan to cooperate on artificial intelligence, quantum computing cyberwarfare and missile technology.
"When we look back, those things will end up being much more important than the submarines," said Zack Cooper, an American Enterprise Institute fellow formerly with the National Security Council. "This sends a very positive sign about US commitment to the region."
The Aukus formation and the submarine deal make unambiguous the allies' central strategy in a serious conflict: to "bottle up" the PLA inside the atolls running south of Japan, east of Taiwan and north of Malaysia or, if that fails, threatening China's Mideast energy shipments in the narrow Malacca Straits. In either scenario, submarines are crucial.
The combined US and Australian nuclear-powered submarine fleet would counter China's expanding-perimeter strategy by lurking silently near the mainland and forcing Chinese submarines through a few chokepoints deep enough to transit without surfacing.
"This would ensure that American submarines can track every Chinese sub when it exits the chain or the South China Sea," said Gupta. "This is military maritime competition."
The alliance and submarine programme risk an arms race in a region that saw a 47 per cent increase in defence spending over the past decade Asia and Oceania's five dozen nations, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, with $US528 billion spent in 2020 alone, mostly by China and India.
A number of issues remain unresolved, including whether Canberra will acquire US Virginia-class or British Astute-class nuclear submarines. and whether events will wait until they are delivered, which is unlikely before 2040. Admiral Philip Davidson, former US Indo-Pacific commander, warned in March that China could attack Taiwan within six years.
"This is a very significant decision by Australia," said former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. "But as things stand, we're not going to obtain an actual operational nuclear submarine perhaps for two decades. And we need more and better submarines now."
One proposed stopgap involves Canberra buying or leasing older US or British nuclear submarines to buy time and build expertise. Campbell said on Friday that the US would do "whatever possible" to get the vessels into Australia's hands as soon as possible. Australia's current submarines sailing out of Perth can remain only 11 days in the South China Sea, compared with 60 days for their nuclear counterparts.
And while the submarines may be built in Australia, given congested US and British naval yards, it is unclear how willing Australian taxpayers might be to shoulder significantly higher defence budgets, currently about 2 per cent of GDP, especially if Beijing lowers the temperature. In addition to the estimated US$3 billion per vessel cost, Canberra - which has never had nuclear-powered vessels - would need to upgrade ports, shipbuilding and human skills.
Building them in Australia could help address constraints in the US submarine pipeline. The Pentagon currently has some 70 nuclear submarines, but its older Los Angeles-class vessels are being phased out faster than new Virginia submarines replace them. That could see the US submarine fleet decline to around 42 by the 2040s before recovering to more than 60 a couple of decades later. "Having allies who can make up that capability is key," said Kaushal.
Strained alliances also need attention. Washington and Canberra badly botched the September announcement, shocking France and undercutting Biden's goal of cementing alliances to counter China. That puts a premium on repairing US-French and Australian-French relations. Earlier this month, Biden sent Vice-President Kamala Harris on a five-day trip to France that included a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron, during which both hailed "the beginning of a new era".
"There are 66 billion reasons why France was upset," said Heather Conley, Eurasia programme director for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "Now we're in the process of digging out of the hole we dug."
Aukus is already raising concern in Asian capitals wary of being forced to choose between China and the US. The alliance also calls into question the role of a strongly supportive Japan, barred by law from joining but highly vulnerable should China invade Taiwan.
"China's objective is to isolate Japan, militarily but also economically," H.R. McMaster, Japan chair at the Hudson Institute and former national security adviser to president Donald Trump, recently said. "And Taiwan is the first step in doing that. All you need to do is rotate the map 90 degrees."
The Aukus alliance could also prompt realignments in the alphabet soup of existing regional groupings, including the Quad, Anzus, the Five Eyes, Nato and the Asean Regional Forum.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, among others, has criticised Aukus for embodying "Cold War mentality, double standards and contempt of rules with a clear political agenda".
By Chinese standards, however, Beijing's response has been relatively mild, analysts said. Some believe Beijing hopes the Washington-Paris strains will divide its adversaries by themselves. Others conclude that China's recent campaign to intimidate Australia economically has backfired and that further pressure is counterproductive.
The state tabloid Global Times "at one point in time said, look, Australia is like the gum on China's shoe", said John Thomas Schieffer, former US ambassador to Australia. "Never tell an Australian something like that because they are one tough people, and they don't like to be leveraged and they don't like to be squeezed."
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