Evan Medeiros on AUKUS Nuclear Submarine Deal

Dr. Evan S. Medeiros is the Penner Family Chair in Asia Studies in the School of Foreign Service and the Cling Family Distinguished Fellow in U.S.-China Studies. His research and teaching focuses on the international politics of East Asia, U.S.-China relations and China’s foreign and national security policies. He has published several books and articles and regularly provides advice to global corporations and commentary to the international media. Dr. Medeiros’ background is a unique blend of research expertise and practical experience. He previously served for six years on the staff of the National Security Council as Director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia - and then as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asia. In the latter role, Dr. Medeiros served as President Obama's top advisor on the Asia-Pacific and was responsible for coordinating U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific across the areas of diplomacy, defense policy, economic policy, and intelligence. He was actively involved in all aspects U.S.-China relations for six years, including several U.S.-China summits. Dr. Medeiros advises multinational companies in his role as a Senior Advisor with The Asia Group. Prior to joining the White House, Dr. Medeiros also worked for seven years as a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. From 2007-2008, he also served as policy advisor to Secretary Hank Paulson working on the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue at the Treasury Department.

Carley Barnhart CMC '22 interviewed Dr. Evan S. Medeiros on September 22, 2021.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Evan S. Medeiros.

To start off, what does the US Australia nuclear submarine deal contain? And what is its significance?

The core of the US, Australia, UK, submarine deal is an agreement between the US and the UK, to share technology for nuclear powered submarines; they're going to be selling that technology to Australia. There's nothing related to nuclear weapons. It's all about the propulsion system for submarines (what the US calls SSNs, or, nuclear powered attack submarines). Australia will jointly with the United States and UK build some eight to twelve SSNs. The virtue of nuclear powered submarines over the alternative, which are diesel electric submarines, is that nuclear powered submarines can basically go farther, faster, stay out longer, and they have better sprint capabilities. For a country like Australia, that is down in the corner of the earth, far away from some of the strategic points in East Asia, whether it's the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, Sea of Japan, etc, you need a submarine system that has real endurance. Nuclear submarines provide that. The core of the deal is the sharing of this technology, though the specifics of the sharing arrangements and co-production still have to be worked out.

But of course, there is a political-military dimension to it as well and that is further knitting together America, Australia and Britain. By sharing this technology, you're effectively creating interoperability between the American submarine fleet, the British submarine fleet, and of course, the Australian submarine fleet. When US vessels, either it's SSN, or SSBNs, which are nuclear submarines that also carry ballistic missiles and are a key part of the US nuclear triad, when those submarines are on the other side of the world and if they need to pull into port in Australia, and get repaired or resupplied they can do so in Australia, because Australia has the infrastructure to support nuclear submarines. Depending on how they are configured, these systems should be able to communicate directly with American submarines. Perhaps they'll be able to coordinate different missions, whether it's intelligence missions, surveillance missions, tracking Chinese or North Korean submarines, or perhaps even participate in joint combat operations.

You mentioned that for Australia, these nuclear powered submarines are a necessity. And the Australian Prime Minister seems to agree; he said that they're not just a want but a need, and they're exactly what Australia needs to protect both its interests and its people. So I'm wondering, is this deal significantly better for Australia than the deal with the French? And how significant is the threat of China to Australia?

It is significantly better for Australia in this regard. Number one, U.S. nuclear submarines are just a better capability than diesel electric for the reasons that I explained. It's also a better deal because the US and the UK are the world leaders in this technology, we pioneered it, so they're going to be learning from the best. Also, my understanding is that the French deal was becoming  problematic, because French engineers were having difficulty building the system that they promised to provide to the Australians; it was delayed, it was becoming costly, and it wasn't clear that the final product would be a good product. Essentially, the French were taking France's nuclear submarine and trying to put a diesel electric engine and propulsion system into it. Imagine, you've got a Tesla, and the Tesla's too slow and you don't like it and you decide, okay, I'm just going to put a BMW engine into it. It's not that simple. I think that the cost overruns and the delays in the French deal were worrisome to the Australians. Also, because the China threat-environment was changing for Australia, which affected Australian politics, Prime Minister Morrison felt like the Australian public, which had been skeptical, if not resistant to buying fewer submarines from the US, was finally willing to do so, because they understood that the threat from China was growing. The threat is both an economic threat and a national security threat.

In general, how have the security challenges of the Indo-Pacific region impacted this deal? And to what extent is this deal attempting to signal to China?

Certainly, a motivation of the deal is an attempt to send a signal to China about U.S. and regional concerns about its military capability. The signal is that as the Chinese military, especially its Navy, grows not only in its capability, but in its area of operations, that countries in the region are going to react. In other words, it's about, very specifically, Australia acquiring capability that will help to prevent China from dominating the seas, in particular, the undersea space, which is an area of particular strength of the US Navy now. I think Australia recognizes that the US and Australia want to maintain that advantage in the undersea space, because if you can dominate it, or at least have a substantial advantage in the undersea space, that will help deter Chinese coercion and aggression. This deal, theoretically, helps continue that current American advantage into the future.

Has the development of nuclear silos in China impacted this deal whatsoever? Also, these are nuclear powered submarines, not nuclear weapons, as you mentioned, but is there concern of a new nuclear arms race between the US, allies and China?

There's no direct link between these two. The issue of the growing size of China's nuclear weapons arsenal became public relatively recently. But I would imagine that intelligence agencies in the US and Australia probably have known for quite a while. The broader issue is what's the nature of the China military challenge. The nuclear piece is just part of a broader mosaic. To be sure, it's an increasingly important one, because historically, China's nuclear arsenal has been small. Today it appears as if the Chinese nuclear arsenal is expanding, and importantly, it's expanding rapidly. The pictures of the silos means that it's expanding on land, but one should assume it's also expanding in the sea-based leg of China's arsenal, in the form of nuclear powered submarines. Tangentially, I would expect that among the defense planners in Australia and in the United States, they're thinking, as the sea leg of China's nuclear weapons arsenal grows, we're going to want to be able to hold that at risk in order to enhance deterrence. Having more SSNs, American, British and Australian ones, who can monitor and surveil Chinese ballistic missile nuclear submarines, gives the US and its allies even greater advantage in what looks to be a growing competition in nuclear capabilities between China and the United States.

What has been and what will be the Chinese response to the deal? And do we think that this deal has significantly impacted Australia-China relations?

Australia-China relations were already quite bad due to Chinese pressure that began over a year ago. Australia continues to be under significant economic pressure after the Chinese imposed both formal and informal tariffs on a variety of Australian exports in an effort to put economic pressure on Australia for their so called anti-China policies. The Australian view is, in for a penny in for a pound, we're already in the penalty box, let's just do what we need to do anyway. That relationship isn't likely to improve anytime soon. 

Interestingly, the Chinese response rhetorically to the AUKUS deal was relatively limited. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson criticized the deal, and there were a few critical commentaries in Chinese media like Global Times, but not much more than that. But then interestingly, two days later, you have the Chinese announce that they were submitting their documents to join CPTPP, the most advanced, high quality Asia-Pacific trade agreement. China had been interested in CPTPP for many years. The timing of that Chinese action could have been influenced by this deal, because CPTPP is very much seen as a strategic trade agreement. It was originally created as a way to align economies around a variety of trade and investment practices, domestic economic policies that are very different than how China operates. It is possible that the timing of China’s announcement about CPTPP may have been influenced by this AUKUS deal.

In terms of US-China relations, do we think that this deal makes cooperation between the two countries even more difficult or strained?

It's hard to say because U.S.-China cooperation is fairly limited right now. U.S.-China relations are somewhat tense. The Chinese have already said that they're not interested in cooperating on big global challenges, like climate change, until America reduces its pressure on China, and stops undermining Chinese core interests, such as American policies on Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other sensitive human rights issues. It's not as if there's a substantial track record of cooperation.

But here's the key thing about cooperation with China: the Chinese cooperate, not as a gift to the United States or Australia or even Britain, they do it because it's in their own interest. They do it because the Chinese, for example, have made a variety of commitments on climate change: peak carbon by 2030, carbon neutrality by 2060, and Xi Jinping just announced that China is going to stop financing the export of coal fired power plants. They do that because they have their own concerns about climate change, not as a gift to the United States. I don't think it's really going to materially constrain cooperation between the United States and China. Of course, the Chinese use this framing to try and deter the US from doing things that China doesn't like. 

Do you think this deal, if at all, could affect nuclear non-proliferation?

No. Australia is a party to the NPT, and a party in good standing, Australia doesn't really have a civilian nuclear power industry at home. It's not like they have a nuclear infrastructure that they could use to break out of the NPT and sprint to build nuclear weapons. But perhaps the most important point is that Australia has a treaty alliance with the United States in which we have promised to protect their security, which means they are under our nuclear umbrella. Among the American allies in Asia, Australia is one of the highest quality allies; our military forces, our intelligence services are deeply integrated with one another. As long as the nuclear umbrella exists then I don't worry about them kicking the US out and developing nuclear weapons.

Carley Barnhart CMC '22Student Journalist

National Archives at College Park – Still Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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