Now that the trilateral Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) Partnership guidelines on nuclear-powered submarines are open to public scrutiny, the ultimate answer may well be a competing Russia-China bilateral submarine partnership.
A proposal from China, a sort of “Anti-AUKUS” Axis, with Russia exchanging submarine technology for military aid, rejects AUKUS and solves some pressing problems for both countries.
The proliferation of Russia’s nuclear submarine know-how – something Russian ruler Vladimir Putin has so far refused to share – poses a real risk of complicating the West’s Indo-Pacific security framework, while military aid from China could make things difficult for Ukraine.
Suppose Iran were also included, completing a rival trilateral “Anti-AUKUS” partnership. In that case, Russian nuclear submarine technology proliferation could wreak havoc far beyond the Indo-Pacific and into the Middle East and Europe.
Preparing an anti-AUKUS axis:
The Chinese diplomatic response to AUKUS is more obvious by the day. According to reports, Chinese President Xi Jinping planned to visit Russia and meet with Putin as soon as next week. This news came less than 24 hours after the AUKUS declaration. A trip to Iran is also in the works.
Putin, a martial arts enthusiast, may find a judo-style diplomatic investment strategy rather tempting, given that AUKUS plainly targets China and gives the UK a lifeline to construct more submarines to safeguard the North Atlantic.
Chinese diplomats and Li Shangfu, China’s new pro-Russian defense minister, will be happy to barter for Russian submarine technologies. Li, who the United States has blacklisted for buying sophisticated Russian weapons for China, is well-versed in the specifics of Russia’s aging military hardware and can determine what Beijing needs.
All the pieces for an unprecedented technology transfer deal are in place. China’s relationship with the United States is at an all-time low. Russia’s nuclear submarine technology is one of the few remaining areas of near technological parity with the West, but in exchange for trade trinkets for the Russian urban elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg, artillery shells and basic electronics seem to have been exchanged in the Ukraine conflict.
With Australia poised to host new submarine assets, US and British nuclear-powered submarine support visits at HMAS Stirling, a strategic Western Australian base near Perth, China needs modern nuclear submarine technology immediately.
The Chinese Navy is in trouble under the sea as its newest nuclear submarines, the Shang-class attack submarine (Type 093) and Jin-class ballistic missile submarines (Type 094), are noisier than submarines. Russian Akula I and Oscar II class nuclear weapons from the Cold War era.
To put China’s poor technical performance into perspective, the first Akula entered service in Russia in 1984 and the first Oscar II in 1986.
For China, the timing couldn’t be better. With China’s industrial base poised for rapid submarine construction, injecting new Russian submarine technology is all China needs to kick-start a submarine arms race.
In November 2022, the Australian press warned that “dry docks at China’s nuclear submarine facilities in Huludao, Liaoning province, show increased activity. New construction ships are prepared. Another dry dock is ready to go.”
Adding Iran to the Russia-China “No Boundaries” bilateral may be a bridge too far, but given that Iran is already aiding Russia’s war effort by providing drones and other assistance, Putin and Xi would have even more opportunity to destabilize the current geopolitical order in the Middle East.
The consequences of an anti-AUKUS alliance
An Anti-AUKUS deal so soon after AUKUS validates the West’s alliance for underwater technologies. AUKUS was created to regulate China’s ascent and avert catastrophic Chinese expansion.
But a sudden technical alliance between China and Russia complicates matters. If China is faced with a rapid buildup of modern Russian-improved nuclear submarines, the Indo-Pacific countries will be hard-pressed to respond. Long-term US shipbuilding plans will be shelved as inadequate, and other Indo-Pacific stakeholders will have to shift their defensive stance quickly.
Interest in nuclear submarines in the Pacific region is expected to soar once China’s new nuclear submarines begin playing “hide and seek” in the region.
The AUKUS arrangement, flexible enough to maintain technical parity with the reasonably rapid advancement of Chinese submarine technology, would be hard-pressed to keep pace with an explosion of Chinese variations of advanced Russian submarines.
It would require a rapid response from Western democracies that would push them far beyond the parameters of the AUKUS pact. Clearly positioned as the West’s first export-oriented standard nuclear submarine, the SSN-AUKUS might attract possible partners from India, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Canada, and other Pacific democracies.
With the massive project being inspired by the F-35 Lightning II, the SSN-AUKUS submarine may end up in many more places than originally predicted in the AUKUS briefings made public.
For the United States, any marriage of advanced Russian nuclear submarine technology with China’s enormous maritime manufacturing capabilities is a tough pill to swallow. High-level Russian submarine technology already challenges US submarine dominance. With similar technology in the hands of China, tensions in the Pacific will soar as Russia’s new nuclear submarines enter service.
The mere possibility of an up-to-date Iranian nuclear submarine would increase regional tensions, while Iran’s presence in a high-level accord with Russia and China provides a much-needed domestic boost.
For Russia, transferring nuclear submarine technology to China is a humiliating gamble.
Trading the technological jewels in the Russian crown for little more than 122mm and 152mm ammunition and a few Western computer chips catapults Russia into the status of a client state of a resurgent China. But besides natural resources and territory, Russia has little to offer the formidable Chinese president.
Once Russia’s technological advantage is gone, it won’t come back. An already weakened Russia, facing a huge, sparsely populated, and now unprotected land border with China, was counting on submarine supremacy as a way to curb Chinese adventurism to the north.
Russian sovereignty in the North Pacific and Arctic will be challenged if China is given control over underwater space, and if relations deteriorate with China, Moscow has few military alternatives because it lacks the capabilities to contest the Chinese shoreline.
Putin may not care about these possibilities. Russia can forget about Siberia now that it has a regular supply of weaponry and the possibility to subject Ukraine to Moscow’s will quickly. Instead, it can concentrate on Western Europe and the Mediterranean, where Putin has his heart, yacht, and vacation property.