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I am writing a briefing paper for the main UK opposition party on the new AUKUS security pact between the US, Australia and UK. It is possible that this paper will shape their stance on the issue and could affect future Government policy. 

I have not been able to find anything on the EA forum about AUKUS (although this annoyingly could be because the search tool corrects 'AUKUS' to 'August') and I would be grateful for any input, particularly from the following perspectives:

  • Whether AUKUS increases or reduces the chance of armed conflict. It feels like we should always be wary of proliferation of military capacities, but there is also a chance that the strengthening of US allies in the region deters or delays Chinese invasion of Taiwan. It is also notable that Taiwan, who have the most to lose from any conflict, have welcomed the deal. 
  • The precedent set by use of nuclear technologies, and whether this counts as nuclear proliferation given that it is nuclear powered submarines rather than nuclear warheads
  • Whether this is better than the realistic alternatives. I.e. we'd all like a world where China and the US could just get on, but given that they can't, perhaps a meaningful security pact is a better way of drawing clear lines than proxy trade wars and cyber attacks. My understanding is that clarity about intentions and red lines can reduce the chance of conflict in many game settings.
  • Exclusion of France, Japan and other potential allies. Most of the media attention, at least in the UK, has been on how France is pissed off, which to me feels like a fairly minor concern compared to the above points, but potentially I'm missing something. E.g. maybe it's really important that the US and UK don't do things without broader 'Western' backing

Would be grateful for comments, thoughts, articles and blog posts of any length and depth!




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I wasn't convinced by the argument that the US needs multi-lateralism, especially if it can still rely on allies like the UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, Poland etc. The US has repeatedly shown its ability to force other states to comply with its wishes in a variety of ways. This is even the case with war - for example the Iraq war, which was basically entirely the US, with some small help from close allies like the UK and Poland. Similarly I think speculation that this might cause the end of the dollar as a reserve currency seems very, well, speculative.&nb... (read more)

Thanks, I think I agree with most of this. I wonder also if the US and others were a bit surprised at how strongly France reacted. As with the Afghanistan withdrawal, I wonder if Biden underestimated the strength of European partners' feelings. I agree it's hard to assess how much these things ultimately matter though. It does seem that, for Australia's purposes, the nuclear propulsion option is superior to diesel, however I'm sure a key part of opting for nuclear was getting to be in a pact with the US.

"The precedent set by use of nuclear technologies, and whether this counts as nuclear proliferation given that it is nuclear powered submarines rather than nuclear warheads"

Complicating this, I believe some of the submarines are ballistic missile submarines i.e. they're adding to Australia's strike capability, although they won't have nuclear warheads,which is relevant e.g. in a preemptive attack against a nuclear launch site, with conventional missiles.

Off-topic, but if you're interested in UK policy and non-proliferation, it's worth noting that the UK recently announced an increase in the number of nuclear warheads it has, which seems to me to be a clear breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I've written about in on the EA forum here

Thanks, I'm surprised the UK's proliferation didn't get more attention! 

Key takeaways from The Economist's latest briefing:

  • ASEAN members probably benefit from a balance of power between the US and China, so AUKUS tips the scale slightly towards more balance. However, there is also a short history of flip-flopping support (e.g. Philippines preferring China at first then the US, Malaysia not liking the nine-dash line but still kowtowing to China). 
  • "But China’s gambit makes stark the fact that America is unable to match it. And its lack of economic leadership remains, in the words of Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s former top diplomat, 'the big hole in American strategy'."

Although my guess is that the West's soft power is still stronger in Southeast Asia than China's, past colonial atrocities and the lack of restitution are still bottlenecks from better coordination. It's quite persuasive to hear this, "look, these Western imperialists are at it again. I (China) am the only hope to a fairer and richer future." For example, you get articles like this.

However, it's also not clear to me that Western soft power still has foothold. The Chinese diaspora in Malaysia, a significant ethnic minority, is generally pro-China. 

This is a good analysis! Just to extend / build on your argument, the key thing I'm interested in is the probability and extent of any armed conflict. There is a lot of game theory involved with this, but crudely speaking conflict can arise when one side sees an advantage in attacking first. This could be because they hold a stronger-but-not-dominant position or a weaker-but-not-crushed position, as it is in these positions that the payoffs to conflict are highest. So perhaps the idea behind your first bullet point from the Economist is that a balanced pow... (read more)

Yes, that's right!  Yes, but it's more like China's economic influence has tilted the balance in China's favour for some years now (i.e. Belt & Road Initiative). It's only  recently with AUKUS that there's more of a balance between China and the US overall.  However, in terms of economic  influence, China still has a stronger foothold in ASEAN than the US. 

I was going to suggest some forecasts but I struggle to think of new ones. Feel free to message me. The key question for me is "what outcomes are you concerned about and given the AUKUS security pact has already happened what flexibility is there to be concerned about?" Eg it's already happened, what's to brief about rather than current risk on those issues.

As for current forecasts, there are questions on nuclear war and Taiwan. You can search them here https://metaforecast.org/

Feel free to message me if I can be of more use. Thanks for what you do

Thanks Nathan. In terms of briefing MPs, I think my main aim is to shift the debate towards the most important aspects of the deal, from a longer-term and bigger scale perspective. E.g. when Parliament debates AUKUS, it would be a shame if the debate entirely focuses on UK job opportunities from the deal, or French anger, when there are bigger issues of nuclear warfare at play. I guess the theory of change is that this improves the standard of debate which helps politicians make better defence capability decisions in the future. 

People have commented relatively little on the digital tech cooperation element of the agreement. There's currently less substance to go on compared with the submarine element. But it strikes me that the impacts here might be more important in the long run, in the extent to which they shape the development of AI. Not going to make a judgement here (although happy to discuss offline).

I have been following AUKUS developments in Australia, and have tried to get local EAs interested to little avail.

This should be a hugely important issue to the EA community.

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Hey, this is a great topic and it’s really awesome that you’re writing a brief for such an influential audience. I haven’t seen and wouldn’t expect to see much EA-specific discussion of foreign policy, but I think this is a great place to have those discussions. I’m not an expert by any means, just have been following the news on this and related topics, so here’s a few off the cuff impressions.

I’ve been somewhat convinced that the US foreign policy aim and perhaps the best EA policy aim in relations with the current Chinese government is as stated by the hawkish American Senator Tom Cotton: “The ultimate objective of that strategy should be, to quote the document that launched this country’s ultimately successful strategy against the Soviet Union, the “breakup or the gradual mellowing” of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) power.”

This line of thinking runs strongly against my humanitarian and cooperative instincts, instead drawing on philosophies of realpolitik and international conflict to argue that the West and the current Chinese regime have fundamentally different interests and cannot cooperate in the long run. China wants to be the world’s #1 power and quite possibly has the power to do so within the coming decades or century. If the current incarnation of the CCP continues to lead China during this time, we might continue to see human rights abuses, mass surveillance, the persecution of dissent, and travesties like the Uighur concentration camps for the duration of the regime. Since the 1990s, Western foreign policy has attempted to cooperate with China any bringing them into our economic sphere and hoping political change will follow. Tom Cotton’s “Beat China” paper articulates an emerging counter-consensus arguing that this Chinese regime will not be co-opted and must instead be defeated in the traditional sense. He says:

“The challenges of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union all ended with total American victory; the Cold War was even won without direct military conflict. Once again, America confronts a powerful totalitarian adversary that seeks to dominate Eurasia and remake the world order, albeit with its own unique and subtle approach.”

This to me is a good candidate for the best EA position on the CCP and China relations. If EA had been around during the Cold War, I hope we would’ve been anti-Soviet (though perhaps not to Red Scare levels). If the Chinese regime is similarly totalitarian, we should aim for their replacement as well.

Here is the link: https://www.cotton.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/210216_1700_China Report_FINAL.pdf

That’s only tangentially related to AUKUS, so to give some more direct thoughts:

I’m not sure why France was left out. One possibility is that nuclear subs were the crux to the deal, and that we could not form the deal without replacing France’s deal. But this seems unlikely, because the first nuclear subs under AUKUS will not be delivered until at least 2040(!!!). [1] Why didn’t we let France in on the deal?

One possibility is simply diplomatic incompetence. The US State Department has been gutted by hiring freezes and other legacies of the Trump administration, maybe we just forgot to take care of a crucial ally. But even then, there probably has to be some positive argument in favor of leaving out France.

One possibility that I have not seen discussed is that France has not contributed significantly to the NATO/Western military effort, having spent less than 2% of GDP on military for many years running [2]. If France will not contribute substantially, then perhaps the US and UK are finished giving France a free ride on their national defense and international prestige. The stakes are higher than they’ve been in 30 years; maybe it’s time to pay up or sit down. Of course, that’s all my baseless speculation.


[2] https://tradingeconomics.com/france/military-expenditure-percent-of-gdp-wb-data.html

Thanks Aidan, super helpful. I too have cooperative instincts but am very sceptical of China and the US ever being friendly without some sort of significant political change in China, though I believe this doesn't necessarily require the downfall of the CCP, but could at least initially take the form of a more moderate / Western-sympathetic leader. It's unclear how that will happen any time soon though. 

On France, my understanding is that its exclusion is primarily down to (a) a strong preference for nuclear propulsion technology, which is held by the US and UK, and has not been shared with anyone else until now with Australia. It's unclear what France would add in terms of military technology; (b) the Five Eyes agreement, which means there is already information sharing between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Involving France in the information-sharing aspect of AUKUS would mean changing Five Eyes, which could be a long process and other Five Eyes members might not be up for it. 

Not sure how much weight to give this, but I also sense that the UK, US and France are all particularly bad at foreign policy at the moment, in their individual respective ways. The UK has been pissing off European partners ever since the Brexit vote, and keeps getting into stupid arguments with France over things like fishing and refugee policy. The US withdrew from Afghanistan chaotically and without communicating with European allies, and it still has the hangovers from Trumpism which you mention. Meanwhile France seems to be annoying all its former colonies with failed diplomatic spats - e.g. Algeria, Lebanon - while also failing to inspire the military cooperation it wants within the EU. 

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