Author: Dr. Farah Naz

In September 2021, leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced creating an enhanced trilateral security partnership called “AUKUS’’ for the Indo-Pacific region. The member states are considering their strongest ally, Japan, to join AUKUS. Tokyo’s potential participation in advanced military capability projects with the United States, Britain, and Australia under their AUKUS security pact could enhance Japanese capabilities and provide a new set of opportunities to boost the country’s defense industry. However, many defence and strategic studies experts raise concerns about how Donald Trump’s win will affect the AUKUS deal. Will Trump sink AUKUS if he wins? Will Donald Trump support selling nuclear submarines to Australia?

The trilateral agreement is intended to strengthen the ability of each government to support security and defence interests, building on longstanding and ongoing bilateral ties. It aims to promote deeper information and technology sharing and foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. The agreement will strengthen Australia’s national security and contribute to regional stability in response to unprecedented strategic challenges. It aims to build a future ‘made in Australia,’ by Australians, with record investments in defence, skills, jobs and infrastructure, and deliver a superior capability after a decade of inaction and mismanagement. From 2023, the project aims to achieve Australian military and civilian personnel embedded in US and UK navies and at sub-plants; US nuclear subs visit Australian ports. Australia’s SSN-AUKUS submarines will be built in Adelaide, South Australia. Enabling works will begin in 2023 at Osborne’s future submarine construction yard. The yard will be almost three times larger than the yard forecast for the Attack Class programme. From 2026, British nuclear subs will visit Australia. From 2027, the UK and the US will begin rotational nuclear sub presence in Australia in the early 2030s, the first of up to five US-made Virginia-class subs to be operated by Australia.

The first initiative under AUKUS is a commitment to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. The second initiative intends to enhance joint capabilities and interoperability, focusing on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities. The multi-decade deal with the US and the UK will see Australia purchase US-manufactured nuclear submarines as well as develop its own to counter China’s increasing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific.

On March 13, 2023, AUKUS allies announced an optimal pathway to produce a nuclear-powered submarine capability in Australia at the earliest point while ensuring all three partners maintain the highest non-proliferation standards. Australia signed the historic AUKUS security pact worth $368 billion in 2023. There was plenty of questioning about whether it was well spent as ordinary Australians face a high cost of living. Guardian journalist Amy Remeikis also took exception to a phrase by Defence Minister Richard Marles, who called the deal “an investment we cannot afford not to make.”

Tom Corben, a research fellow at the US Studies Centre, told that AUKUS had already survived leadership transitions in two of the three countries (Australia and the UK) and had “continued apace.” Partly, that is because of the nature of the submarine deal and the fact it relies on the transfer of US technology and US-completed submarines to Australia at a point in time where US policymakers are concerned over whether they have enough submarines – completed or in production – to meet American needs in the first place. Regarding Trump’s getting into power and the status of AUKUS, Tom Corben said, “Mr Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra could complicate things for Australia if applied to AUKUS.”

Richard Dunley, a naval and diplomatic historian, said the deal “looks best from Washington,” describing the cost as “astronomical.” Republican members of Congress say presidential nominee Donald Trump is likely to back the AUKUS agreement to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia even if US production targets are not met. Congress approved the sale of used submarines to Australia beginning in 2032. Still, the arrangement depends on the US increasing the number of new Virginia class submarines it builds from 1.2 to 2.3.

Congressman Rob Wittman, a Trump supporter whose electorate includes a major submarine building yard in Virginia, said Trump would likely back AUKUS and be flexible around the sale of submarines. He further mentioned, “I think [Trump] has to have some flexibility in how these metrics are met,” Mr Wittman told AFR Weekend on the side-lines of an AUKUS conference in Washington organized by former Liberal minister turned consultant Chris Pyne, ‘If you don’t meet the metric by January 1, 2032, we’re not going to sell you a submarine,’ then that’s not reasonable”. He stated that I think [Mr Trump] sees partnerships as incredibly important to ensure we have the wherewithal to deter malign forces like China. To him, Trump considers the US unable to do it by itself. Strong strategic relationships are going to be vital to achieving the desired objectives.

Senator Jim Risch, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the Biden administration had to “get the basics of AUKUS right before it expands the pact to other partners.” A second Trump presidency is uncertain, but a forward-thinking Australian government would start planning for that possibility. Much more is at stake than bonhomie in terms of alliance relations. Suppose Trump trashes the AUKUS partnership on the false grounds that it involves America “losing” and Australia unfairly “winning” an alliance advantage. In that case, Australia emerges with no credible defence posture in a dangerous world. Beyond submarines, Australia needs the US to stay engaged in the security of the Indo-Pacific. The worst possible Trump nightmare is that the president “cuts a deal” with Xi Jinping, leaving Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Australia most exposed to China’s ambition for regional dominance. Since Curtin and Menzies, Australian governments have put immense effort into shaping American security policy in the Indo-Pacific. The ANZUS alliance and its AUKUS offspring have been successful because Australia invests so much effort in understanding Washington. There is a reason the Australian brand is so strong and so popular in Washington, DC. It’s not because Australia is brilliant but rather because Australia builds personal relationships and does its best to bring genuine military, intelligence, and diplomatic capability to the table. Hence, a change of leadership in the US should not affect AUKUS.

Note: Authors views are not necessarily views of the publisher, and no liability on publisher in any case.

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