Last month, it was announced that a strategic new partnership had been formed between Australia, Britain, and the United States. Blindsiding France with only a few hours’ notice, Australia withdrew from its $66 billion deal with the former to deploy American nuclear-powered submarines instead.

On 15 September, President Biden in his announcement claimed that it would strengthen alliances and provide a security deterrent against the threat posed by China.

At least three questions need attention. First: how much of this partnership has been formed entirely for the stated purpose? Second: what does it mean for these three countries to be exclusively involved with each other to the detriment of others? Third: is AUKUS (as this alliance has been dubbed) a revival of nationalism, and if so, is that a good thing?


Nationalism in its most basic form is the support for one’s nation and its interests to the possible detriment or exclusion of other nations. AUKUS, if we read between the lines, betrays a leaning towards just this type of thinking.

The Australian-British-American partnership is one of a kind, providing a Pacific ally with high-level submarines that have a limitless range and that are more difficult to detect than conventional ones. Biden’s decision to share this technology, even with a close ally, holds considerable weight and raised a few questions from American allies and non-proliferation experts.

For one thing, the last time this nuclear propulsion technology was shared with an ally was in 1958. The Cold War by this time was already underway. ‘This just further deepens the sense that we do have a new Cold War in Asia’, said former Australian defence official, Hugh White.

It’s notable how technologies (once used during a time when nationalism ran rampant between two superpowers), are now being replicated to push back against a new communist power — suggesting that this strategic deal is just as much about dominance as it is to quell territorial claims made by China.

The Australian vessels will contain nuclear reactors, and while this is not the same as being nuclear-armed, it still tips the balance of power — especially with Australian soldiers on board. Australia will certainly benefit from this nationalistic show of force against a nation they have in the past been reluctant to oppose. Vipin Narang, a professor who studies the use of nuclear weapons at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has said: ‘attack submarines […] send a big message’. And China has received that message.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, believes that the submarine agreement will ‘exacerbate an arms race and harm international nuclear non-proliferation agreements’. The Chinese Communist Party has long made such grandiose statements in the face of any resistance made by the West. Given that these submarines will be powered by highly enriched uranium — another Cold War remnant that is considered a risk of proliferation — the latest statement may carry some truth.

Indeed, for two decades, Washington has been attempting to get rid of reactors around the world that host this bomb-grade fuel. Nuclear summits have been run by former President Barack Obama, urging countries to stop using highly enriched uranium that could fall into terrorist hands.

For Australian submarines to be powered by the same bomb-grade fuel that the United States has long tried to eradicate, isn’t just a hypocritical move. It is an indication of the willingness to ignore established boundaries and treaties.

The AUKUS partnership is starting to show that it isn’t simply about protecting oneself against flagrantly nationalistic China. More accurately, it’s about the preservation of Western military power at the risk of abandoning non-proliferation attitudes. ‘If non-proliferation has to take a back seat, that’s the right call’, said Elbridge Colby, the former deputy assistant secretary of defence strategy and force development.

China has the world’s largest navy now. Understandably, that has made some nations a little nervous; especially its neighbours. Hence the triple alliance. But then why not include other nations in this partnership, like France? For one thing, Britain greatly benefits in excluding its longstanding rival and reasserting its influence on the world stage. Since Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has worked to bolster a new defence strategy called ‘Global Britain’ that would serve its nationalistic interests.

Japan and India — who are already in an informal partnership with the United States and Australia — would also make great additions, especially with their proximity to and past antagonisms with China. But instead, they have been cast aside like the French. Biden announced that this agreement would invest in America’s alliances. But does it? Quite the opposite, it has exposed the ‘thin multilateralism’ of its other alliances in which the only countries whose interests will be served are Australia, Britain, and the United States.

Nationalism can serve as a positive force in the protection of core principles, such as self-governance and the right to self-determination. AUKUS is arguably a reflection of this mentality but goes a step beyond it in that it is exclusive and exclusionist. Only a select few get to exercise the privilege of serving their country’s self-interest,  the rest are left out to fend for themselves.

China hasn’t been shy about its nationalistic agenda. Understandably, AUKUS wants to fight fire with nationalistic fire. But that doesn’t justify an agreement that excludes other countries in a region where their self-governance and self-determination are at threat.

Does China pose the gravest of threats to warrant overstepping the line of non-proliferation and excluding other allies? AUKUS seem to thinks so.