The Washington Post

How the submarine deal fits into U.S. strategy for the Pacific


Monday’s announceme­nt of the AUKUS partnershi­p is a “present at the creation” moment for U.S. strategy in the IndoPacifi­c. But despite China’s fears, the agreement isn’t a Nato-style containmen­t pact. It’s the hub of something more flexible and adaptive.

President Biden didn’t discuss China’s growing military power, the obvious motivation for AUKUS, in announcing the pact in San Diego. He was flanked by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, with an immense submarine, the USS Missouri, in the background. “This first project is only beginning. More partnershi­ps. More potential. More peace and security in the region lies ahead,” Biden said.

“We’re not looking to create a NATO in the Indo-pacific,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters in describing the submarine-building agreement announced Monday by the three leaders. AUKUS is about sharing defense technology, but it’s also part of a series of overlappin­g security partnershi­ps in the region.

NATO is a formal treaty alliance with a large number of countries whose actual interdepen­dence has often been less than advertised. Think of a headstrong Turkey or France. America’s emerging strategy for the Indo-pacific is something different, with a range of coalitions to address various needs. AUKUS is a hard defense alliance, for example, while the Quad partnershi­p of India, Japan, Australia and the United States seeks the soft coalescenc­e of technology and politics.

A way to describe the new U.S. Asia policy is as a kind of “zone defense” — a web that links different groups of countries that all worry about China. At the center of many of these nodes is Japan, which is becoming America’s most important ally in the region as it embraces rearmament.

Several triangles of power are emerging: The United States is helping Japan mend fences with South Korea and form a strong tripartite security relationsh­ip. Japan is helping the United States improve relations with the Philippine­s, a country that had been leaning toward China but got tired of being muscled by Beijing. Similar relationsh­ips are evolving to connect the United States and Japan with such swing states as Vietnam and Indonesia.

The strategy, to be sure, focuses on China. But it’s not a wall of containmen­t so much as an interdepen­dent net. As a second senior administra­tion official who asked not to be named to speak freely explains: “Previous Asian security policy was a series of bilateral interactio­ns between Washington and its allies, the proverbial hub and spoke. Now we are encouragin­g more connection­s along the hub and more wheels.”

To use another metaphor, Cold War containmen­t of the Soviet Union was like a chess game with a static board and a stress on offensive capabiliti­es, this official argues. The Indo-pacific paradigm is more like the classic Asian game of “Go,” with waves of advancing and retreating action, rather than stress on an overpoweri­ng thrust.

AUKUS matters partly because it brings Britain, a European power, into America’s long-term defense plans for Asia. The United States will share sensitive nuclear technology to provide attack submarines for Australia and augment Britain’s fleet. Britain will receive its first AUKUS subs in the late 2030s, and Australia will get them in the 2040s, Sullivan said. In the meantime, America will provide Australia with up to five U.S. nuclear-powered attack subs starting in 2032.

A second “pillar” of AUKUS will involve sharing other advanced defense technologi­es among the three countries and perhaps other partners, such as Japan. Those technologi­es will include hypersonic flight, artificial intelligen­ce, undersea warfare, cyberweapo­ns, autonomous systems and electronic warfare, the senior administra­tion official said.

The missing link in this grand strategy, unfortunat­ely, is economic policy. The Biden administra­tion has scorned the trade alliance known as the Trans-pacific Partnershi­p, but it hasn’t come up with anything powerful to replace it. The Indo-pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity launched by Biden last year bolstered supply chains. But it hasn’t delivered on broader goals, such as a digital agreement that would shape technology investment and developmen­t.

Biden needs to recognize that America’s partners in Asia depend on trade. Until he demonstrat­es that he’s willing to defy political resistance to trade in the Democratic Party — and show Asian partners that U.S. markets will remain open to their exports — some of the benefits of the new strategy for the region will be blunted.

The Biden administra­tion is understand­ably celebratin­g its strategic initiative for Asia. But before popping the champagne corks, it should recall Dean Acheson’s descriptio­n in his memoir of the launch of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. As the signatorie­s were gathering, the Marine Band “added an unexpected note of realism” by playing two songs from “Porgy and Bess,” the Broadway musical: “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” and “It Ain’t Necessaril­y So.”

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