ANALYSIS - Third front of New Cold War expanding in Asia-Pacific

From time to time, US allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific have second thoughts about US’s extended deterrence, and these reservations may not always be related to China

Prof. Nursin Atesoglu Guney   | 24.09.2021
ANALYSIS - Third front of New Cold War expanding in Asia-Pacific

The author is a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Nisantasi University.


A new security pact was signed between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia on Sept. 16, 2021: the AUKUS (Australia, the UK, the US) Security Pact. The agreement, under which high-level uranium technology used in American nuclear submarines will be shared, has sparked reactions from many.

First of all, it is not difficult to recognize who the primary target of the AUKUS Pact is, and therefore the strongest reaction came from China. However, as soon as the three states signed the pact, AUKUS stated that it did not target any one country and that its goal was to prevent possible regional conflicts. These statements, however, were not enough to calm the Beijing leadership down as it was obvious what kinds of crises could be avoided using nuclear submarines. For this reason, China claims that the US decision to share its nuclear submarine technology with its two partners with a goal of targeting the Asia-Pacific region would upset regional balances, incite a new arms race, and also that this new AUKUS initiative of the three countries would reintroduce the Cold War mentality to the region.

The New Cold War refers to the competition between the United States, Russia, and China to limit the freedom of movement of their competitors in specific areas. There was armament on a regional level in the previously opened fronts of the New Cold War, especially the Mediterranean and the Black Sea-Caucasus region. Let us not forget that efforts are being undertaken to expand the third front, which stretches from Afghanistan to the East and South China seas, an already heavily militarized region. When the US withdrew from Afghanistan, it wanted Beijing and Moscow to bear the full brunt of the consequences of engaging or not engaging with the Taliban, the terrorization and division of the region, and the region falling under the sphere of influence of certain powers. With AUKUS, it is now more expensive for China to improve its nuclear and anti-access/area denial capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.

China’s area denial power is being targeted

It should be remembered that when it comes to area denial in the Asia-Pacific, Beijing has been significantly more advanced. China’s military command consists of 60 submarines, six of which are nuclear-capable. Especially since submarines are known to play a critical role in area denial, Washington has been executing patrol duties in various locations with its nuclear submarines in the region for some time now, reminding the Beijing administration of its presence. The Biden administration is now combining its own capabilities with those developed through the AUKUS pact, warning China that the US-China crisis would not remain between China and the US. Besides, the parties have previously declared that their cooperation within the framework of the trilateral defense pact would not be confined to nuclear energy. Washington, Canberra and London intend to exchange their knowledge and expertise on artificial intelligence, cyber technology, quantum technology, submarine systems and long-range strike capabilities.

Time will tell whether this will have an impact on China’s nuclear doctrine or conventional power-building strategies. At this point, however, China abandoning its area denial strategy would mean either confinement in a large prison or conflict with Russia. Of course, if we were discussing conventional and nuclear armament in the region, it would not be appropriate to examine the issue solely through the lens of the US-China rivalry. In fact, the Biden administration appears to have ruined France’s project while laying the groundwork for AUKUS without consulting any of its regional allies. We will see in the coming days what kinds of unrest will be sparked in the states of the region by these provocations against China.

Is the Biden administration becoming “Trumpian”?

The Joe Biden administration appears to have felt compelled to expand its presence in the Asia-Pacific region with yet another trilateral security pact, 70 years after the 1951 ANZUS (Austria, New Zealand, and the United States) pact. This came as a surprise to no one. In fact, when questioned about why the US was leaving Afghanistan so quickly, Biden hinted that he would escalate the rivalry with China and Russia. Thus, Biden demonstrates that the administration has implemented a new strategy while abandoning the US War on Terror policy, which began in Afghanistan in 2001, without consulting anyone, particularly the Europeans who were dragged into following this policy willingly or unwillingly. Indeed, as a result of these unilateral withdrawal, power shift, and escalation decisions, some Western experts argue that US President Joe Biden has recently begun to develop “Trumpian” characteristics. This refers not only to Trump’s unglorified use of unilateralism, but also to the continuation of the spirit of Trump’s motto, “America First”.

The US putting its interests before the interests of its allies and choosing to act unilaterally without consulting its allies have changed the alliance relations of the New Cold War. We stated in our previous articles that the New Cold War alliances were no longer ideological and rigid structures, but they were rather flexible and, therefore, operated on the basis of benefits. The problem is that these benefits are obtained on extremely slippery ground. In fact, when the submarine project presented itself with the chance to take part in a defense pact with the US and the UK, as well as with access to critical technology, Australia trashed the conventional submarine project it had with France, which was worth 90 billion Australian dollars, without second thought. The French, who, with the encouragement of the US, have included China in NATO’s threat perceptions, and who need money to resurrect the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) or a different European pact as an alternative to NATO because they were abandoned on the ground in Afghanistan, are rightly enraged. Biden chose to invest in a new alliance relationship, turning his back on France, i.e., the US’s NATO ally that he had barely managed to placate at the NATO Summit in Brussels.

Allies are ill at ease

The rapid changes and inconsistencies in the US’s attempts to “win over allies”, as well as the private interests of the US being prioritized over common interests and security, give the impression that we are dealing with a Biden administration whose actions are identical to the Trump administration’s, despite their outwardly different discourse. And, due to this trend of “Trumpification”, US allies in the Gulf, Africa and Europe are quite disturbed and are trying to revive their plans for strategic autonomy.

Certain European Union (EU) member states leading the way in strategic autonomy are putting pressure on the EU bureaucracy to demonstrate how serious they are. According to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell and European Council President Charles Michel, Afghanistan is a “warning sign”. EU officials announced that they were working on the Strategic Compass plan, which will expand the Union’s defense investments, priorities and strategic vision. But unfortunately, Brussels is still at the very beginning of this journey. There is a lot of division in the Union regarding security, so there is no way the Union could ever gain strategic autonomy. Following the AUKUS pact, i.e., the “nuclear submarine incident”, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to convince the US’s NATO Western allies of American/NATO defense security any longer. In short, this vicious circle may trigger new ruptures if the EU fails to make strides in the economic and political fields. Here is the “bright future” that the US has granted to the EU!

Do nuclear submarines pose a challenge to disarmament?

The international community has rightly expressed various concerns about the US and UK’s decisions to share high-level uranium-powered nuclear technology with a non-nuclear-weapons member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), such as Australia. Providing the fuel for a nuclear-powered submarine to a non-nuclear state would necessitate the transfer of large amounts of uranium to a country that should not be allowed to possess such large amounts under the NPT. Although Australia’s Prime Minister stated that his country has no plans to acquire nuclear weapons or generate nuclear energy, some experts warn that the privilege granted to Australia may increase the likelihood of global nuclear proliferation in the future. The submarine deal with Australia is not the first time the United States has twisted the NPT agreement to suit its own interests. In 2006, the United States signed a cooperation agreement with India, which is not a signatory to the NPT, allowing the two countries to exchange nuclear know-how.

The US’s double standards in its nuclear policies have long drawn the ire of countries and groups working to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. According to these organizations, in the future, countries that are currently restricted, such as Iran, may acquire high levels of uranium using submarines as an excuse, facilitating the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Quite a reasonable warning indeed.

The Asia-Pacific is of great importance to the US

From time to time, US allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific have second thoughts about US’s extended deterrence, and these reservations may not always be related to China. Not long ago, North Korea’s conventional attack on South Korea, for example, prompted all allies to reconsider the benefits and drawbacks of their alliance with the US. As a result, Washington made efforts to assuage its allies’ concerns by enacting a slew of additional measures.

Today, AUKUS is such an additional measure as well. However, two aspects of this additional measure distinguish it from the others. First, the US is taking this additional measure not only because its allies in the Gulf and Europe are skeptical of their alliance with the US, but also at the expense of even deepening their suspicions and/or increasing their losses. Second, the US has so far only shared its nuclear submarine technologies with the UK. It is well known that the US is quite secretive and jealous in this regard. Although it already had regional deterrence, the US has now added Australia to the list of countries with which it shares critical information as an additional area denial measure and guarantee. These two aspects demonstrate that the US takes the Chinese threat in the Asia-Pacific seriously. It seems that we will be witnessing a gradual escalation of the New Cold War in the region.

Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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