If anyone thought that the defence and security scene in the Indo-Pacific was simple, a matter merely of balancing an incumbent superpower, the United States, with a rising superpower, China, recent events have revealed the region's true complexity. Three new elements have arisen to highlight that complexity: the "AUKUS" security alliance between Australia, the United States and the UK; the resumption of ballistic missile tests by North Korea; and the rising tensions surrounding Taiwan.
In some ways, the AUKUS alliance is the strangest new event, until you examine its details and its strategic significance. It is the strangest event because it substituted one western alliance for another, causing great anger within the western alliance.
Since one of the expected benefits of President Joe Biden's arrival in the White House in place of Donald Trump was the renewal of the West's greatest asset, the warmth and closeness of its alliances in Europe and East Asia, the willingness of Biden to anger the French was deeply surprising. Yet it was really Australia which decided to renege upon its 2019 "Strategic Partnership Agreement" with France, under which the Australians had committed to a $90 billion contract for a fleet of conventional, diesel-powered submarines (for which Japanese firms were rival bidders), and replaced it with an agreement to buy eight nuclear-powered submarines from the US and UK instead.
That 2019 agreement with France had been signed by the same Australian government, under Prime Minister Scott Morrison, but had been negotiated by his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, in whose government Morrison served. So why did Morrison renege on a deal signed only two years earlier and negotiated by his own party, much to Mr Turnbull's evident annoyance?
The answer lies in China's bullying behaviour toward Australia during the intervening years, with its boycotts of Australian exports and its very public diplomatic insults. This tipped the balance in the Australian government between those who favoured maintaining friendly relations with the country's biggest export market and those who wanted to become fully committed to America's vision of Indo-Pacific security.
The key difference between nuclear-powered submarines and diesel-power vessels is their geographical range and the amount of time they can spend submerged. Diesel-powered submarines therefore chiefly served to defend Australia's own territorial security; nuclear-powered vessels enable the Australian navy to play a role in the U.S.-led strategy for the whole Indo-Pacific, and especially the South China Sea.
The single most significant strategic development in the Indo-Pacific during the past two decades has been China's successful construction of what security specialists call "area access denial." In normal language, this means mainly submarines but also other weaponry which makes it far riskier for American naval vessels, especially aircraft carrier groups, to sail into the South China Sea during a period of tension or actual conflict.
Back in 1995-96 when China used missile tests around Taiwan to pressure the island's then government, President Bill Clinton sent two U.S. aircraft carrier groups to sail through the Taiwan Strait. This would still be possible today but would be riskier, thanks to Chinese area access denial capabilities.
The Australian fleet of nuclear-powered submarines will only become operational by the late 2030s. But at that point they will form part of what can be seen as a sort of reciprocal area access denial strategy; if China were to contemplate using its submarines to sink or damage western naval vessels, it would have to calculate the risk of Australian and other stealthy nuclear-powered submarines being able to retaliate, very close to China's coastline.
The long-term benefit for the U.S. and Australia of strengthening the western deterrence against the Chinese military has evidently outweighed considerations of the damage done by offending France. The view is that relations with France can be mended in other ways during the next few years. For Australia, the big disadvantage of this switch to nuclear-powered vessels is that the country will make itself more dependent on American supplies and technology, for the country has no civil nuclear-power industry of its own and so cannot create its own nuclear fuel. So this is also a bet on the future dependability of an alliance with the United States.
That bet carries undoubted risks, given the apparent fragility of American democracy. But the safe part of the bet is that whatever happens in U.S. politics, the Americans will still be maintaining their strong stance toward China, especially in defence and security.
The two other recent events have shown why this feels increasingly necessary, but also how it can risk an escalation of tensions. North Korea had suspended or at least greatly reduced its missile testing during the Trump administration, a period in which President Trump held his historic but ultimately unproductive bilateral summits with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Suddenly this year it has conducted a whole series of tests, of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and of what it claims to be a new, ultra-fast hypersonic missile.
This may represent a purely North Korean decision to resume its past practice of displaying its military strength so as to intimidate others, including Japan, and as a negotiating tactic. Yet another explanation is equally plausible. This is that this resumption of tests has taken place with the approval, or even encouragement, of China. Amid deepening hostility between the U.S. and China over trade, technology, the pandemic and security, China may have decided to support the North Korean military tests as further proof of how little influence the U.S. and its Western allies have over Indo-Pacific security.
That applies most strongly to Taiwan. China has been flying more and more military aircraft through the island's air defence identification zones, so as to make the point that in China's view this is actually Chinese territory. In a major speech on Oct. 9, President Xi Jinping spoke plainly about his desire for "reunification" between China and Taiwan.
This causes a big dilemma for the West. Ever since the 1970s and Richard Nixon's opening of relations with Communist China, the West has officially followed a "one-China" policy even while supplying arms to Taiwan to ensure it can defend itself against invasion. The political temptation is growing to recognise Taiwan as an independent nation, perhaps not officially but by treating it and its government in that way.
Yet this risks encouraging China to act now to force a reunification rather than waiting for any peaceful route, which itself would risk a much wider conflict. Deterrence of such a forced reunification is a vital necessity for Indo-Pacific, in fact global, peace and security. But making the Taiwan issue much more prominent and open is also risky. We cannot doubt it: Indo-Pacific security is a complex and dangerous affair.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)