Taiwan and the AUKUS: A Double-Edged Sword for Taipei?

On September 15, US president Biden, Australian Prime Minister Morrison, and British Premier Johnson announced a new trilateral security alliance, known as AUKUS. Even though the official announcement did not make any particular reference to China, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry reacted swiftly by calling AUKUS “extremely irresponsible.” A ministerial spokesperson later doubled down and proclaimed that AUKUS “will gravely undermine regional peace and stability, aggravate [sic] arms race and impair international nuclear non-proliferation efforts.”

Besides angering Beijing, Australia’s decision to scrap a submarine deal with French company Naval Group in favour of ordering nuclear-powered submarines from the other AUKUS members caused a diplomatic backlash. In a swift move, Paris recalled its ambassadors to both Washington and Canberra. Perhaps the most noteworthy development, however, received little attention. It took a strong rebuke from former British Prime Minister Theresa May to draw attention to possibly unintended side effect of creating AUKUS – the security of Taiwan.  

Through Taipei’s Looking-Glass

Following the announcement, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou merely stated that Taipei had “taken note” but refrained from explicitly endorsing AUKUS. It was only later that Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu noted that his government was “pleased” with the security pact. For Taiwan, the AUKUS announcement coincided with an uptick in provocations across the Taiwan Strait, with Chinese planes entering the Taiwanese Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in record numbers. Nonetheless, while AUKUS might have added impetus for Beijing’s increasing pressure and efforts to chip away at the island’s sovereignty claims, China’s national day on October 1 also offered another opportunity for Xi Jinping to exhibit strength.

Although the AUKUS initiators refrained from unequivocally referring to China in their public statement, Taiwanese commentators were much less restrained in their responses. Liu Shih-fang, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) secretary general noted that AUKUS is a clear-cut answer to Beijing’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the controversial nuclear submarine deal in particular that has caught on in Taipei. Equipped with nuclear-powered submarines, the Australian navy will be able to extend its regional security presence into Taiwanese waters. In turn, it would contribute to an improved combined deterrence capability between Taipei and Canberra and be of vital benefit for Taiwan in the event of an actual attack.

Thus far, most of the discussion surrounding AUKUS is confined to the realm of rhetoric of the treaty as concrete details will not emerge until 2023. Australia will be faced with a much higher financial burden, as switching from conventional to nuclear-powered submarines involves a major change in maintenance infrastructure beyond simply procuring a different type of attack submarine. The Morrison government has stood firm that Canberra is both aware of, and capable of resolving, any potential issues surrounding both the nuclear submarines and the AUKUS deal at large.

What’s Good for AUKUS is Good for Taiwan?

The opaque messaging and lack of insights notwithstanding, AUKUS may be more of a double-edged sword for Taiwan than presumed. Besides upgrading Australia’s future defence capabilities, London, Washington, and Canberra are well en route to creating a multipurpose platform for closer political consultations, including a strengthened research and development regime in highly critical technological areas– from cyber security to protecting underwater cables – and possibly joint military training. For Australia in particular, the U.K.’s and the U.S.’s established expertise in the nuclear realm will be a crucial aspect if AUKUS is supposed to be a successful trilateral alliance.

The nuclear submarines that Canberra will acquire will be the nation’s first which requires building up local expertise quickly, with particular emphasis on personnel training and maintenance. British Premier Johnson has already noted that the U.K. and U.S. will offer their support in closing this technology gap. In turn, Canberra’s new-found interest in nuclear defence technology runs the risk of proving detrimental for non-proliferation efforts. Moreover, merely enhancing Australia’s defence capabilities will be insufficient if not supplemented by actual crew training. It is likely that both U.S. and U.K. nuclear-powered submarines will be operating more frequently in Indo-Pacific waters which would offer an ideal opportunity for Australian crew members to join for training purposes.

Amidst AUKUS’s initial controversy, the deal’s announcement offered a good glimpse into the role Taiwan assumes in this context. Enhancing a member’s capabilities through direct engagement measures indicates that Australia’s role within the triad will be unequivocally political.  While the U.S. has for long been making adjustments to its Taiwan policy, Australia’s position was far more ambiguous. In the common statement, however, “Australian counterparts expressed their shared commitment” to Taiwan, indicating that Canberra is at least rhetorically switching gears and aligning its foreign policy outlook with Washington’s. Australian Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, even noted that “it would be inconceivable that we [Australia] wouldn’t support the U.S. in an action if the U.S. chose to take that action.”

Besides expanding its support network, the capabilities that the trilateral security arrangement brings with it will most likely be frowned upon in Beijing. Overlapping interests and increased military presence in the waters surrounding Taiwan are a case in point. The day following the AUKUS announcement, two U.S. strike carrier groups, the new UK aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Australian HMAS Canberra (which features a helicopter landing dock) all entered the South China Sea. The freedom of navigation exercises underscored that, at its core, AUKUS signals an even stronger desire to deter Beijing from launching an all-out attack on Taiwan. The pact will also bundle capabilities which would make any move by Beijing to unify with Taiwan by force potentially riskier.

Despite these more or less positive signals, both the current leadership as well as future administrations in Taipei will have to take these commitments with a pinch of salt. Australia’s nuclear capabilities will not be available for another twenty years and yet Canberra is slated to phase out its currently deployed Collins class submarines well before. Consequently, Taiwan will have to contend with numerous uncertainties when relying on Australian underwater support. Similar concerns could be raised about the U.K.’s role as an Indo-Pacific security provider. Although equipped with nuclear expertise, no British submarine is permanently stationed in the region, begging the question whether London will either seek to set up a British overseas base closer to Taiwan or whether its ambitious plans will ultimately fall short of action.

A Cautionary Tale

With much of the AUKUS deal yet unknown among its members, it is likely that the corridors of power in Taipei are filled to the brim with questions. Nevertheless, with all evidence pointing to an increased support for Taiwan, Beijing will be on the watch. Concrete changes in capabilities are only expected in the early 2040s but AUKUS does send a powerful signal of a changing security calculus in the interim period. Beyond good and bad news, however, Taipei would benefit more from clearly articulated commitments rather than opaque security partnerships such as AUKUS. While there are promising elements, too many variables remain unaddressed and could undermine the effectiveness of the trilateral pact vis-à-vis Taiwan’s overall security.