🍆What is the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal all about?

The world needs a submarine emoji to avoid confusion

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Good morning!

In ‘our world’, it’s UN General Assembly week. For the uninitiated, that’s when the world’s leaders gather in New York to listen to each other speak. If they’re really lucky, they might get to see one of the world’s despots go mad in real time

In the ‘real world’, it’s end-of-summer-fancy-dress-event season. We know you didn’t miss self-described socialist AOC wearing a designer ‘Tax the Rich’ dress to the Met Gala in New York, and then proceeding to sell merch on her official store.

Irony, or trolling, or whatever it was, we’re pretty sure she’s the most media savvy politician since… well, ever. And yet despite that, this TikTok was by far the best thing to come out of the gala (sound on):

If you like that, check out Bad Lip Reading for many hours of lolz.

This week we can’t help but cover the US-UK-Australia-but-most-definitely-not-France nuclear submarine deal:

  1. 🌊 What is it and why does it matter?

  2. 🙈 Was it a result of really bad diplomacy?

Let’s get to it!

🌊 AUKUS: what is it and why does it matter?

By Helen

If you’re like me, you probably thought killer whales were getting an awful lot of airtime on primetime news this past week.

Turns out they weren’t talking about Free Willy and a new orca conservation movement, but rather ‘AUKUS’ – a defence and security agreement between the US, Australia, and the UK that was announced (allegedly very much on the sly but more about that later) on 15 September 2021.

The AUKUS deal is considered a fundamental shift in the tectonic plates of geopolitics… blah blah blah jargon… basically it’s a big freakin’ deal.

Over the last week, the deal has been likened to watershed diplomatic events like Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Australia certainly hasn’t received this much media attention since it gave COVID-19 to Tom Hanks (we’re still sorry Tom).

So what’s the big deal?

Sceptics are wondering what all the fuss is about, given that these three countries have been in cahoots and fighting wars together for decades. 

So what’s actually in this agreement, and how does it differ from the existing Five-Eyes agreement that Australia, the US, and the UK already share with New Zealand and Canada?

Well, two big things:

  • Nuclear submarines: At the core of the deal is an agreement for the UK and US to help Australia develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines (though they will not have nuclear weapons). Nuclear-powered subs don’t need to surface as frequently as conventional diesel-electric subs and have the capability to travel much longer distances (which is key when you’re trying to dodge surveillance). This is supposedly the ‘crown jewel’ of US military technology.

  • Advanced military capabilities: The agreement covers key areas such as artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, underwater technology, long-range strike capabilities (which can reportedly hit targets as far away the Malacca Strait, a key global shipping lane), and potentially, nuclear defence infrastructure. The US is basically handing over its secret military secret sauce for the first time since they shared it with the Brits about 70 years ago. A big moment for Australia. 

But it’s not all plain sailing (submarines sail, right?):

This deepening Australian enmeshment in US grand strategy is not bad per se, but it does come with serious political, diplomatic, and military risks for Australia.

- Dr Benjamin Herscovitch, Australian National University

The diplomatic fallout

AUKUS has torpedoed Australia’s existing US$66 billion deal with France struck back in 2016, to build a fleet of conventional submarines. The deal was known in France as ‘the contract of the century’, which is phrasing that to me just screams ‘oh my god we can’t believe they signed it, les idiots’.

France has since recalled ambassadors from Canberra and Washington DC for the first time ever.

(Interestingly the French left their Ambassador to the UK in London because they were already ‘familiar’ with British opportunism, and the UK is seen as the ‘third wheel’ in the deal. Sick burn).

I’ll let the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian explain further:

At the request of the President of the Republic, I am recalling to Paris without delay our ambassadors to the United States and to Australia for consultations.

This exceptional decision is justified by the exceptional gravity of the announcements made on 15th September by Australia and the United States.

Okay, sorry, I might need to run that through the International Intrigue Diplomatic Jargon Translator: 

Look, I’m pretty embarrassed that this happened on my watch. You pop out for a morning pastis and boom, you’re down $66b. We French are a proud people, and in times of turmoil we must do what we do best: retreat to Paris.

Also, our military industrial complex wants us all in one place when they tear us new a***holes. Safe to say they're tres cheesed that we couldn’t stop a tiny country like Australia from flipping us the diplomatic bird.

Unfair jokes aside, the French are understandably pretty pissed.

If you’re wondering why, you’re not alone - it’s easy to forget that the French have important national security interests in the Indo-Pacific region, including territory (French Polynesia and New Caledonia), and about two million French citizens.


China has been blatantly (and almost comically) omitted from official statements about the deal. Given China’s diplomatic glass jaw, avoiding mentioning them by name is pretty standard behaviour these days, but it’s still amusing to watch the three countries’ officials dance around the elephant in the room.

The AUKUS pact itself also makes no mention of China, and yet it is clear the deal is intended to push back against China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. After the recent Afghanistan debacle, many experts questioned whether the US remains committed to ‘policing the free world’.

AUKUS seems to be a rather emphatic answer.

Zoom out

At least officially, AUKUS is all about ‘fighting for freedom of navigation of the seas'. There is no doubt that Australia will be better equipped to assist in that ‘fight’... sometime in the 2030s.

The headline-grabbing diplomatic scuffle between allies will most likely blow over, if only because withdrawing an Ambassador tends to lose its cache if you do it on the reg. After it' has blown over, we will all inevitably turn to what’s next…

You may call it cliched, lazy, inappropriate, or all three, but I just cannot get the ominous words of Winston Churchill out of my head:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

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🙈 AUKUS - the result of bad diplomacy?

By John

I like to think the term 'AUKUS' was onomatopoeically coined by a teenager to describe the vibe in the room at the next meeting between Presidents Macron and Biden: 

Sorry. Now that both Helen and I have got our acronym based puns out into the open, we owe you some solid analysis to make up for them. 

Luckily, I’ve been thinking about AUKUS all week (riveting life I lead, I know) and I have two major reflections. I’d love to hear what you think about them in the comments.

1. Was the AUKUS announcement really bad diplomacy by the US?

It’s like in a couple, you know, when you commit … you don’t run away.

- Jean-Pierre Thebault, French Ambassador to Australia

Yes that was the *check notes again* French ambassador who said that, and yes he somehow said it with a straight face.

Few outside the upper echelons of the involved governments know precisely how this deal played out diplomatically. The media reported that the French Foreign Minister learned of the decision just before it was announced and he has done nothing to suggest otherwise, accusing Australia of "lying and committing a major breach of trust".

But so far President Emmanuel Macron has stayed quiet...

🤪 My crazy theory about how the deal might have gone down

President Macron is facing a difficult re-election next April. His far-right opponent Marine Le Pen will likely run on a platform of anti-globalism and French nationalism. Macron will be anxious to blunt any accusations that he has cosied up to the Americans, or has been naively outwitted by devious foreigners down under.

Now, let me stress that what follows is pure speculation on my behalf, but could it be that this seemingly atrocious bit of diplomacy was actually a grand bargain of sorts?

Here’s my hypothetical scenario:

  1. The US quietly informs France about the AUKUS deal. France is understandably peeved, though probably not surprised - the Australian sub deal was rife with problems and delays that were becoming embarrassing for the French Government.

  2. Faced with a fait accompli, and with one eye on next year's election, Macron and his advisers decide to say that the US announced AUKUS without telling them and that France is quite simply furious. What better way to turn submarine lemons into re-election lemonade? After all, there is no purer way to be French than to hate the Americans... unless maybe if you hate the Americans while holding a croissant.

More seriously, by claiming the US announced AUKUS without warning, Macron gets to:

  • Draw political attention away from the embarrassing problems with the submarines and the loss of a giant contract.

  • Neuter one of Marine Le Pen's most potent political attacks, giving himself a better shot at re-election.

And in return, by allowing France to bash them about a bit, the US achieves two strategic goals of its own:

  • Raise the chances President Macron is re-elected, or more accurately, minimise the chances that Marine Le Pen is elected. The US under Biden does not want a far-right, anti-globalist French President at a time when there is serious strain in the US-EU relationship.

  • Ensure that France's outrage at the AUKUS deal remains superficial. As long as Macron is in charge, France will likely restrict itself to furious words and symbolic diplomatic gestures that will die down with time. No long-term strategic harm done.

🪒 But never forget Occam's Razor

Having laid out my crazy theory, I feel compelled to note that when it comes to government decision making, the simplest explanation is usually the most correct.

It’s a well known fact that the 'defence establishment’ in Canberra (and Washington and London) currently runs roughshod over the 'foreign policy establishment'. 

That is to say, it's entirely believable that any concerns about sloppy diplomacy raised by diplomats would be quickly waved away by politicians captivated by ceremonially betunicked admirals warning of imminent war in the South China Sea.

If the whole process did go down the way the French have claimed, then it can only be described as utterly incompetent and frankly exceptionally arrogant diplomacy from the US, UK, and Australia.

Maybe that’s the truth, but I think my theory is more fun.

2. China's recent diplomacy has been historically inept

There were three key developments during my time as a diplomat in China (2015-2019):  

  1. President Trump was elected in 2016.

  2. Xi Jinping consolidated his power within the CCP throughout 2016 and 2017. 

  3. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to take advantage of a distracted and erratic America, China developed a far more aggressive foreign policy, now colloquially known as ’wolf warrior diplomacy’.

China’s diplomatic decision making tends to be top down, not bottom up. Decisions made in Beijing set the tone abroad, rather than Chinese embassies guiding decision making in Beijing as they are theoretically supposed to.

Accordingly, the image of an army of brook-no-shit, Rambo-esque diplomats forcing foreigners to comply or else, is designed in China, for China. The idea that diplomacy should aim to win friends and influence people is not a feature of ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’.

In fact, I bet if you asked a seasoned Chinese diplomat "do you think China's current diplomatic approach is likely to achieve China's foreign policy goals", they'd say... well they'd say yes because they're diplomats... but I bet they'd want to say no.

Why am I dragging China’s diplomacy when they had no part in AUKUS?

Well, because I think the AUKUS deal is the direct result of an abject failure of Chinese diplomacy:

  1. AUKUS is not good for China

If it was China's goal for Australia to align more closely with the US militarily, then I truly don't understand geopolitics. While there are numerous articles about how Australia needs nuclear subs, I've found precisely zero that argue that AUKUS makes Australia's navy worse.  

And it's not just about the subs themselves - as Helen wrote above, the closer cooperation between the US, UK, and Australia ensures that China's objectives (cough cough Taiwan reunification) will be harder to achieve.

  1. China has alienated Australia

Since around 2017, Australia has copped both barrels of China's more forceful foreign policy. As a result, Australians view China as more of a threat than a partner for the first time this century:

Such a stark swing in the way one country views another will inevitably have political consequences. It’s unsurprising that in the face of China’s openly antagonistic brand of diplomacy, Australia felt the impulse to snuggle up to its closest ally.

To be clear, Australia has at times handled its relationship with China exactly like you would imagine a country with a defence minister who looks like this, would:

But when it comes to indelicate diplomacy, nothing can compare to the ‘dossier of 14 disputesleaked by the Chinese Embassy in Australia late last year. 

Did any Chinese diplomats with the capacity for independent thought really think that the Australian government would respond positively to that? With exception of the Bledisloe Cup (the annual rugby competition between Australia and New Zealand), Australians aren’t big on public struggle sessions.

  1. AUKUS was not inevitable but rather a result of alienating Australia

The deal to acquire French-made submarines was signed in 2016. In just five short years, the global environment has changed so much that:

  • the US felt compelled to share their ‘crown jewels’ of military technology for only the second time, and;

  • Australia felt compelled to definitively nail the US flag to the Australian mast, furious reaction in Paris and Beijing be damned.

Geopolitically speaking, that’s a huge shift in a very short amount of time. Even if you don't think China's assertive foreign policy caused this shift, the failure to prevent AUKUS is still a catastrophic failure of Chinese diplomacy.

Too many talking head types fetishize China's leaders as genius decision makers playing chess while the messy politics of democracies make other countries look like they’re children playing checkers.

‘Wolf warrior diplomacy’ should remind us that Chinese leaders put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.

Zoom out: the world just got a little less safe

As an Australian (or indeed an American, Brit, European or even Southeast Asian), it's tempting to think that AUKUS will deter China's military ambitions and therefore make the world a safer place.

To think that fundamentally misunderstands history. Two weeks ago we quoted historian Niall Ferguson:

We often think of the Cold War as a cold nuclear war, where nuclear weapons meant Armageddon or peace. The reality is more nuanced: a limited nuclear war is something that will happen at some point, the surprising thing is that it hasn't happened yet.

So what AUKUS is really saying is: when, not if, there is war in Asia, we’d rather flip a coin on the outcome than let the Chinese achieve their ambitions without a fight.

Maybe that’s the right approach, but let’s be clear: arming Australia with nuclear powered submarines clearly raises the chance of catastrophic conflict in Asia within our lifetimes, and likely a lot sooner.

➕ Extra intrigue

  • Macau: the Chinese government has recently launched a regulatory overhaul that will tighten central supervision of Macau’s gambling industry. As a result, the city sometimes referred to the 'Chinese Las Vegas' (which is a misnomer, because Macau is actually the world's biggest casino hub and generated six times the revenue of its American counterpart in 2019) has lost some of its shine for casino investors. RIP junkets.

  • The EU: with AUKUS leaving France in the lurch, pressure to build an ‘EU military force’ is growing. During her annual state of union speech, the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen stressed that member states must be politically willing to build an EU military force that's independent from the US and NATO (diplomatic speak for 'we no longer want be subject to the swinging whims of our transatlantic neighbours').

  • Russia: Google and Apple faced pressure from the Russian Government this week to remove a voting app created by allies of detained opposition leader Aleksei Navalny from their respective app stores. The apps were designed to help Russians coordinate protest votes in the upcoming elections. Spoiler alert: Russia won this round, which has incensed free speech activists around the world.

  • Rwanda: Paul Rusesabagina, the titular character from Hotel Rwanda (a film about a hotel manager sheltering hundreds during the Rwandan genocide) has been sentenced to 25 years in jail for 'terrorism' offences. Rusesagabina has denied all charges, and believes it was his criticisms of Rwanda President Paul Kagame's dubious human rights record that contributed to his arrest.

🙏 Thanks for reading.

Don’t forget to send us your questions for next week’s edition.

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Until next week!

PS: Helen here - John found this tweet outrageously funny, but I’ve no idea why (nor does he). You with him or me?

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