The US forges a new security alliance in the Pacific that has consequences for the whole world. The danger to Europe: it will continue to be marginalized. The Asia expert Maximilian Mayer warns of this.
Mr Mayer, Germany is on the final spurt of the election campaign. Meanwhile, the Americans are changing the political map in the Pacific on the other side of the world. What’s going on there?
Maximilian Mayer: The USA, together with Great Britain and Australia, have created a new defense policy alliance called “Aukus”. For the first time, with the exception of Great Britain in the 1950s, the Americans decided to transfer nuclear propulsion technologies for nuclear submarines, in this case to Australia.
What does that mean in the long term?
It seals a new security alliance focused on the Asia-Pacific region. In this respect, what ex-US President Barack Obama had announced as the “Asian Pivot” policy is manifested here. All of this has been prepared for a long time and in strict secrecy and will now be completed within a few days. This creates a new security architecture that will determine the next decades. It should not be overlooked that this is about much more than just a few new submarines for the Australian Navy. A new Anglo-centric infrastructure for defense is to bundle the latest technologies in the field of artificial intelligence, quantum computers, cybersecurity and a lot more.
Maximilian Mayer is junior professor for international relations at the University of Bonn. (Source: private)
What can Europe expect from it?
The whole thing can have a shock effect for Europe. For the EU, the Pacific is important from a purely strategic point of view. France in particular has security interests there. Germany has an Asia-Pacific strategy that is primarily characterized by its economy. The EU is not part of the “Aukus” three-party alliance. This has particularly annoyed the French government, also because a previously agreed delivery of diesel-powered submarines to Australia failed in the course of this nuclear technology transfer. The strategic connection between France and Australia was relegated to the second row.
With three “Aukus” against China: US President Joe Biden (center) with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Source: imago images)
The Europeans are just spectators again?
On the one hand, it dupes the military power of France. Because the British, as an ex-EU member, play a central role, while the French arms industry has just lost a 56 billion euro order. From a global perspective, this step by the Americans means a further geopolitical marginalization of Europe. The EU can only hope to be able to take part in it in the future. This will happen in some way within the framework of NATO, but it will be subordinate, not in the front row. So the question is: what role do the Europeans want to play in this nuclearization of the Pacific? And what can the transatlantic security community do, for example in the event of a military conflict over the status of Taiwan?
With its withdrawal from Afghanistan one could have had the impression that the US was on the decline in global politics. That doesn’t look like it now.
All of this follows the logic of a realignment of American foreign and security policy, which is particularly focused on the Pacific. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was often completely misinterpreted when it was said: a “second Saigon” would weaken America. One would have to rather say: withdrawing the forces from Afghanistan, the Middle East or even Europe enables the political, economic and military relocation of power to the Pacific.
It’s about the Chinese.
“Aukus” is a reaction to China’s continuing economic and military rise. China’s answer was immediate, if more symbolic in nature. In addition to the expected shrill criticism, the country has officially asked to become a member of the trade zone of the “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” (CPTPP). An agreement that the US once wanted to bring to life in the Pacific under the abbreviation TTP, but which President Trump canceled as one of his first official acts in 2017. However, Beijing will have to further adjust its strategy in the coming weeks and months. This could include military threats against Australia. Chinese military experts are already talking about the new submarines making Australia a potential target for a nuclear strike.
What is China’s aim in becoming a member of the trade alliance?
The Chinese government is trying, like everywhere else in the world, to make itself economically indispensable. A close mutual economic interdependence makes a confrontation less possible. In this way, partners can become more technologically and economically dependent. In the case of Germany, this policy works quite well. The German Chancellor recently pushed ahead with the so-called “Comprehensive Investment Agreement” with China together with the other EU states. It is true that the USA is also very closely linked to China economically. But the advancing military strategic decisions made by the Americans will also force the Europeans more and more to ultimately have to make a clearer decision on one side.
Is such a decision still possible?
I hardly think that a clear decision has yet to be made. We are not in a black and white world of a new cold war. But the strategic cost of economic connection with the Chinese economy, especially for Europeans, will be higher. From the American point of view, the fact that the Europeans are not part of “Aukus” is very likely due to the fact that both Germany and the French work too closely with the Chinese and actually want to remain neutral in this economic and geopolitical battle of strength.
Can you describe these costs in more detail?
Europeans are considered less trustworthy compared to Australia or Great Britain, which have taken a very clear stance towards China when it comes to 5G technology. On the other hand, Australia then felt the full severity of Chinese trade barriers. The demands of the Australians to look more closely for the origin of the coronavirus in China have also angered the government there. The signal to the USA was clear: Australia is by your side. In the case of the UK, the situation is less clear-cut because of the huge investments made by Chinese firms such as nuclear power generation. It was no coincidence that Boris Johnson emphasized in the House of Commons that “Aukus” would not be “hostile” to any other power.
For their part, the Chinese are calling on the USA to stop thinking like they were in times of the Cold War and are exercising appeasement. At the same time, Chinese military ships appear off Alaska and Hawaii. Taiwan and Japan are provoked militarily. Is this conflict coming to a head?
It is about power projection and ultimately the question of naval dominance in the West Pacific, but also in the South Pacific. Which is particularly important for Australia because China has cooperated with smaller island states there and has invested a lot. There are fears of a Chinese naval base. Japan will not be formally included in the new alliance, but it will certainly work closely with this formation. The so-called Quad Summit with India, Japan, Australia and the USA will also take place next week. The reform of the security architecture in the entire Greater Region is progressing. If Australia has nuclear submarines, the balance of power will initially shift to the disadvantage of China. Smaller countries such as Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia may have to adjust their security policies accordingly in order not to get trapped.
If you look at the world map, it sounds like a clear containment strategy. While the US has two oceans, China only has the Pacific. And that is increasingly being blocked.
In the United States, some people are discussing this very strategy. It is clearly about containment, i.e. containment. Of course, this is a Cold War word that fell out of time with the Soviet Union. Because despite all decoupling fantasies, it is clear that this can hardly be implemented in times of globalization. Rather, we are dealing with two opposing dynamics. While tensions in the military and technological fields increase, so does the degree of economic interdependence, which China is specifically promoting with the new Silk Road initiative and many investments around the world.
Do the German parties currently have any answers to these dynamics?
You can tell that the idea of trade can still not be killed by change, even if everyone knows that it no longer works. But if it is no longer a question of influencing China’s internal development, then what is it? In fact, there are no alternatives. The governing coalition seems to be at a loss. The FDP or the Greens want to make human rights more of a benchmark, but that is not a strategy either. Basically, the German economy should diversify significantly more and reduce its dependence on China as much as possible. Then politics would also have more leeway.
This will take a while. Does that mean that by then the Germans will at best send a frigate into the Pacific from time to time to demonstrate their goodwill to the Americans?
The German naval capacities are not sufficient for more. What really matters for Germany is an industrial policy that does not allow the digital gap with the USA and China to grow too large, as well as an ideally coordinated European foreign trade strategy.