The declared aim of a new defence agreement comprising the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, christened AUKUS, is to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, with nuclear-powered submarines potentially on patrol.
But you can add it to the list of arrangements among democracies attempting to counter China’s growing power. The so-called Quad partnership, created after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and even the World War II-era “Five Eyes” spy alliance now seem overwhelmingly focused on Beijing.
The growing web has provoked fury from Beijing and worries in some Asian states that the new groupings could fuel a dangerous arms race in the region.
WHAT IS AUKUS
A new security partnership that will see Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarine technology - but not nuclear weapons - from the US and UK.
While it could take more than a decade for Australia to build its first sub, the agreement shows the US seeking to form a more cohesive defense arrangement in Asia to offset China’s rapidly modernising military.
Australia has long tried to balance security ties with the US and its close economic ties with China, insisting it did not need to pick sides. But Beijing’s barrage of punitive trade reprisals following Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s push for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have drastically changed the strategic calculus in Canberra.
WHY ARE THE SUBMARINES IMPORTANT
Nuclear-powered vessels are vastly superior to their diesel-electric counterparts: They are faster, can stay submerged almost indefinitely, and are bigger - allowing them to carry more weapons, equipment and supplies.
Given Australia’s remote location and the fact its subs may operate in waters stretching from the Indian Ocean up to Japan, these are big pluses. Until now, only six nations - the US, UK, France, China, Russia and India - have had the technology to deploy and operate nuclear-powered subs.
France was enraged by the AUKUS deal, which came as a surprise, because Australia simultaneously cancelled a US$66 billion agreement it had with Paris for conventional subs.
WHAT IS THE QUAD
It brings the US, Japan, India and Australia together in an informal alliance of democracies with shared economic and security interests that span the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Formed to coordinate tsunami relief efforts, it lay dormant for years afterward until 2017, when it was revived under then-US President Donald Trump as his administration sought to challenge China from every angle.
Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, organised the first-ever gathering of the Quad leaders in March, at which they pledged to accelerate production of COVID-19 vaccines and distribute them across Asia.
Although their statement does not mention China, the talks came amid a flurry of US diplomacy designed to build a common approach to dealing with Beijing.
WHAT IS FIVE EYES
It is a decades-old intelligence-sharing arrangement among the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
It is so good at keeping secrets that its existence was not publicly revealed until the mid-2000s.
It is not clear how much intelligence is shared, but most of whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s vast 2013 dump of classified US National Security Agency data, for instance, was marked FVEY, meaning it was available to other Five Eyes members.
Advocates say the collaboration was used to positive effect in the Afghanistan war as well as in counter-terrorism operations in the Philippines and East Africa. Snowden attacked it as unanswerable to democratic oversight by national governments.
Cracks emerged this year over China, when New Zealand distanced itself from moves to broaden the group’s remit and take positions on issues such as Beijing’s human rights record.
WHY SO MUCH FOCUS ON CHINA
Its rise has steadily become one of the biggest foreign policy challenges not just for the US, but for almost every Chinese neighbour and democracies around the world.
China’s rapid military development is a particularly acute threat to neighboring countries such as India and the Philippines, which have active maritime or border disputes. But it also threatens the US military presence that has underpinned Asia’s security architecture for decades.
Researchers at the University of Sydney, for example, warned last year that China’s growing missile arsenal could wipe out America’s bases in Asia during the “opening hours” of any conflict.
China’s global economic reach has also greatly expanded as state-owned companies buy up strategic assets such as ports around the world that could be harnessed in times of war.
Its statecraft - spearheaded by “wolf warrior” diplomats - has also grown more aggressive, particularly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHAT IS CHINA'S REACTION
It has consistently lashed out at what it calls a “Cold War mentality”, denouncing such partnerships as anti-China cliques. Chinese officials argued that AUKUS will stoke an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region.
In their view, its members are trying not just to compete, but to contain China’s rise - to throw a military net around it in vital waterways like the South China Sea and undermine the country’s economic development.
Relations have been getting tenser on all sides. Biden, like Trump, has trained his energies on preventing the world’s second-largest economy from pulling ahead. Beijing also has sparred with the UK over Hong Kong and Canada over detained citizens, while Europe has called China a “systemic rival”.
WHAT DO THE NEIGHBOURS SAY
India and Japan welcomed the Aukus deal, even though they are excluded, as a strong signal of the US determination to confront China.
Malaysia and Indonesia expressed deep concern about the potential for sparking an arms race or aggressive action in the region, while Singapore took a more neutral stance.
China ally North Korea lambasted the AUKUS pact as “undesirable and dangerous” and said the move to transfer nuclear technology to Australia underscored the need for North Korea to continue developing its arsenal of atomic weapons.
WHAT HAPPENED TO ANZUS
In announcing AUKUS on Sep 15, Biden noted that it was being formed on the 70th anniversary of the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty, a non-binding mutual defense pact designed to promote security in the Pacific.
The US suspended its obligations to New Zealand in 1986 after that country declared itself a nuclear-free zone and refused to allow nuclear-powered US Navy ships to visit.
New Zealand’s ties with the US have since been repaired, although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Australia’s new nuclear-powered submarines would not be allowed into its territorial waters either.