After AUKUS, Russia sees a potential threat — and an opportunity to market its own submarines

Alexei Druzhinin/AP

Alexey D Muraviev, Curtin UniversityThe global opinions on the new AUKUS security pact between Australia, the US and the UK have been decidedly mixed. China and France immediately blasted the deal, while others, such as Japan and the Philippines, were more welcoming.

Russia, one of the other few nations armed with nuclear-powered submarines, was more low-key and cautious in its initial reaction.

The Kremlin limited its official commentary to a carefully crafted statement that said,

Before forming a position, we must understand the goals, objectives, means. These questions need to be answered first. There is little information so far.

Some Russian diplomatic officials joined their Chinese counterparts in expressing their concerns that Australia’s development of nuclear-powered submarines (with American and British help) would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and “speed up an arms race” in the region.

They suggested the construction of the nuclear submarine fleet would need to be overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency — a proposition unlikely to be acceptable to Canberra.

Read more:
Why nuclear submarines are a smart military move for Australia — and could deter China further

‘Prototype of an Asian NATO’

As more became known about the new security pact, the rhetoric of Kremlin officials began to shift.

For instance, former Australian ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, boldly declared AUKUS was intended to counter not only China’s power in the Indo-Pacific region, but Russia’s, too.

Soon after, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, was calling the pact a “prototype of an Asian NATO”. He added,

Washington will try to involve other countries in this organisation, chiefly in order to pursue anti-China and anti-Russia policies

This change of rhetoric should not come as a surprise to Canberra. Russia has long considered any change to regional security — the creation of new alliances, for instance, or the deployment of new weapons systems — a military risk that would require a response.

Marketing its own nuclear submarines

So, what possible options could Russia entertain as part of its response?

Since Moscow’s view of AUKUS is more of a political and military risk, but not yet a threat, its immediate responses are likely to be limited to political manoeuvring and opportunity grabbing.

Read more:
Russia not so much a (re)rising superpower as a skilled strategic spoiler

Perhaps most notably, Russia may see the AUKUS submarine deal as setting a precedent, allowing it to promote its own nuclear-submarine technology to interested parties in the region. This is not merely hypothetical — it has been suggested by defence experts with close links to Russia’s Ministry of Defence.

Historically, Russia has held back from sharing its nuclear submarine technology, which is considered among the best in the world, certainly superior to China’s nascent capabilities.

Thus far, Moscow has only entered into leasing arrangements with India, allowing its navy to operate Soviet- and Russian-made nuclear-powered attack submarines since 1987. But this has not entailed the transfer of technology to India.

Should Russia decide to market its nuclear-powered submarines to other nations, it would have no shortage of interested buyers. As one military expert suggested, Vietnam or Algeria are potential markets — but there could be others. As he put it,

Literally before our eyes, a new market for nuclear powered submarines is being created. […] Now we can safely offer a number of our strategic partners.

Expanding its submarine force in the Pacific

In the longer run, Russia will also not disregard the obvious: the new pact unites two nuclear-armed nations (the US and UK) and a soon-to-be-nuclear-capable Australia.

The expanded endurance and range of Australia’s future submarines could see them operating in the western and northwestern Pacific, areas of regular activity for Russia’s naval force.

A Russian Navy destroyer visiting the Philippines.
A Russian Navy destroyer visiting the Philippines in 2019.
Bullit Marquez/AP

Should the strike systems on board these submarines have the Russian far east or parts of Siberia within their range, it would be a game-changer for Moscow.

As a nuclear superpower, Russia will need to factor this into its strategic planning. And this means Australia must keep a close watch on Russia’s military activities in the Pacific in the coming years.

Over the next 12 months, for instance, the Russian Pacific Fleet is expected to receive at least three nuclear-powered submarines.

Two of these fourth-generation submarines (the Yasen-M class) are technologically superior to similar vessels currently being built by the Chinese and are believed to be almost comparable to the American nuclear submarines being considered an option for Australia.

The third is a 30,000-tonne, modified Oscar II class Belgorod submarine converted to carry several nuclear super-torpedos capable of destroying major naval bases.

By 2028, I estimate Russia’s navy will have a force of at least 14 nuclear-powered submarines and six conventional attack submarines in the Pacific.

Should Russia start considering AUKUS a military threat, we could expect more to arrive. Their area of operations could also be expanded to the South China Sea, and beyond.

Deepening naval ties with China

In the most dramatic scenario, Russia and China could form a loose maritime coalition to counter the combined military power of the AUKUS pact.

Given the deepening state of Russia-China defence relations, particularly in the naval sphere, this does not seem unrealistic.

Read more:
Australia’s strategic blind spot: China’s newfound intimacy with once-rival Russia

This possible coalition is unlikely to become an actual maritime alliance, let alone the basis for larger bloc involving other countries. Still, if Russia and China were to coordinate their naval activities, that would be bad news for the AUKUS.

Should tensions escalate, Moscow and Beijing could see Australia as the weakest link of the pact. In its typical bombastic language, China’s Global Times newspaper has already referred to Australia as a “potential target for a nuclear strike”.

This might be a far-fetched scenario, but by entering the nuclear submarine race in the Indo-Pacific, Australia would become part of an elite club, some of whom would be adversaries. And there is the potential for this to lead to a naval Cold War of sorts in the Indo-Pacific.

Sceptics may say Moscow is likely to be all talk but no action and the risks posed by Russia to Australia are minimal. Let’s hope this is correct.The Conversation

Alexey D Muraviev, Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why is southeast Asia so concerned about AUKUS and Australia’s plans for nuclear submarines?

James Chin, University of TasmaniaThe announcement of a new strategic alliance between Australia, the US and UK (AUKUS) has caught many by surprise. Besides France, which reacted with fury over Australia’s scrapping of a major submarine deal with a French company, few countries were as surprised as Australia’s neighbours to the north, the ASEAN members.

In particular, Indonesia and Malaysia have come out strongly against Australia’s plan to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the US and UK. Even Singapore, Australia’s most reliable ally in the region, has expressed concern.

The Afghanistan debacle has left a bad taste among many Indo-Pacific countries, and some are wondering if the timing of the AUKUS announcement was intended as a show of US power in the region to reassure jittery partners.

Fear of a nuclear arms race

To understand the deep anxiety in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and other ASEAN capitals requires some context on where they are coming from.

First, many of them think there is no such thing as acquiring nuclear-powered submarines without the prospect of acquiring nuclear weapons in the future.

Australia has not joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which requires parties to agree not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile or threaten to use nuclear weapons.

The Morrison government says the treaty would be inconsistent with its alliance with the US, a nuclear weapon power.

Read more:
The nuclear weapons ban treaty is groundbreaking, even if the nuclear powers haven’t signed

However, Australia did ratify the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1998. And Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week Australia has “no plans” to pursue nuclear weapons.

Yet, some ASEAN countries are worried the AUKUS agreement is a clear signal the West will take a more aggressive stand towards China by admitting Australia to the nuclear club.

Both Indonesia (the unofficial leader of ASEAN) and Malaysia fear AUKUS will also lead to a major arms race in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

The potential for conflict in South China Sea

The new agreement also signals that the US, Australia and UK view the South China Sea as a key venue for this contest against China.

The ASEAN nations have always preached maintaining southeast Asia as a “zone of peace, freedom and neutrality”, free from interference by any outside powers. In 1995, the member states also signed the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, which committed to keep nuclear weapons out of the region. Not a single nuclear power has signed on to it.

Although everyone knows China, the US, Britain and France have ignored these protocols by manoeuvring armed warships through the South China Sea — not to mention China’s building of military bases on disputed islands there — ASEAN does not want to see this number grow.

A Chinese missile frigate launches an anti-ship missile.
A Chinese missile frigate launches an anti-ship missile during a military exercise in the South China Sea.
Zha Chunming/Xinhua/AP

Australian nuclear-powered submarines have the potential to change the dynamics in the South China Sea and make the Chinese much more nervous. There have already been plenty of “close encounter” incidents between the Chinese and US navies in the disputed waters, as well as the Chinese navy and ships belonging to ASEAN members. The region doesn’t need yet another potential “close encounter” to worry about.

The ASEAN states are already very worried about the China-US rivalry playing out in its backyard. And the new AUKUS agreement reinforces the idea that the opinions of the ASEAN members matter little when it comes to the superpowers and how they operate in the region.

Read more:
Jokowi’s visit shows the Australia-Indonesia relationship is strong, but faultlines remain

The region has always insisted on the idea of “ASEAN centrality” in their relations with the world — that ASEAN members must decide what is best for Southeast Asia — but as AUKUS shows, nuclear nations play a different game.

Indonesia is especially unhappy with Australia given the new agreement will affect it directly, given their common maritime border.

Morrison had already been forced to cancel his upcoming trip to Jakarta after President Joko Widodo said he would be unavailable to meet — a decision that was made before the AUKUS announcement. This will add another layer to the strained relationship.

Is there anyone happy about the deal?

While in public, most southeast Asian governments have expressed uneasiness with AUKUS, there is a school of thought that says the more hawkish voices in the region will probably accept the agreement in the long term, as it will help keep China’s aggression in check.

For those in the “hawk” camp, the number one long-term threat to regional security is China. Many think the strategic balance of power has been tilting too much in Beijing’s favour in the past decade, especially after China started rushing to build military bases in the South China Sea and using its navy to protect Chinese fishing vessels in disputed waters.

So, they believe any moves to remind China it does not have a carte blanche to do what it wants in Southeast Asia is a good thing.

Japan and South Korea are clearly in this camp and their muted reaction to AUKUS suggests they are in favour of a “re-balancing” in the region. Taiwan and Vietnam are probably on this side, as well.

The only downside is that Australia may use its nuclear-powered submarines to bully ASEAN countries. If Canberra uses its nuclear submarines as a bargaining chip, it will simply turn public opinion in the region against Australia.

Implications for Australia-ASEAN relations

If anything, the AUKUS move reinforced the widely held perception that Australia’s mantra of being “part of the region” is, in fact, “empty talk”. Australia has firmly signalled its intentions to put its Anglo allies in the US and UK first.

AUKUS also reinforces the view that Australia cannot be accepted as a regional partner or player. This, of course, is nothing new. For years, the ASEAN bloc has seen Australia as “deputy sheriff” to the US, though this view would not necessarily be shared in public.

So, while AUKUS came as a surprise to many in the region, an alliance of this sort was probably bound to happen. It’s just that nobody expected it to happen so soon.The Conversation

James Chin, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Should Australia recognise a Taliban government?

Donald Rothwell, Australian National UniversityShould Australia recognise a Taliban government in Afghanistan? This is a question the federal government has been facing ever since the government of Afghan Prime Minister Ashraf Ghani capitulated to the Taliban on August 15.

Since that time, various Australian government ministers have avoided media questions on this sensitive topic. This week, an interim government was announced in Kabul, so the question has become more pressing.

It is clear the United States, the United Kingdom and others have been in talks with the Taliban in recent weeks. The US’s co-ordinated withdrawal from Kabul could not have taken place without some level of Taliban co-operation. There has already been de facto engagement with the Taliban and a recognition they are now in charge.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne told the Senate on August 23:

Australia will support international efforts to maintain pressure on the Taliban and on any future Afghan administration to meet its responsibilities to its people, its region and the wider world.

From an international law perspective, Afghanistan has not actually changed that much since the Taliban took Kabul. It still remains a “state” for the purposes of international law, and retains its seat at the United Nations. All of the treaties Afghanistan has entered into remain legally valid.

Read more:
The Taliban wants the world’s trust. To achieve this, it will need to make some difficult choices

The 1933 Montevideo Convention has a test for the recognition of a new state. There must be settled boundaries, a defined population, a government and a capacity to enter into international relations.

Australia applied the test to Timor-Leste, for example. Australia was one of the first countries to formally recognise Timor and even signed a maritime boundary treaty in Dili on independence day in May 2002. In that instance, Timor was clearly emerging as a newly formed state from its previous existence as a Portuguese colony and then Indonesian province.

Even if the Taliban proclaims a new name for the country such as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, that does not make Afghanistan a new state for international law purposes. After all, countries changing their names is not exceptional. They also regularly change governments.

In 2021, Australia has faced changes in government in Myanmar and the United States. In the case of Myanmar, Australia expressed its displeasure with the February military coup, but has proceeded to deal with the current military government. Official congratulations were passed on to the Biden administration and business as usual has carried on with Washington.

Despite a military coup in Myanmar, the Australian government has continued to deal with its new rulers.
Lynn Bo Bo/EPA/AAP

Why, then, is the question being asked as to whether Australia and other western governments will recognise a Taliban government in Afghanistan? First, the Taliban’s previous rule from 1996-2001 was characterised by its ruthlessness in seeking to enforce sharia law, and widespread human rights violations, especially against women.

That regime’s legacy is a legitimate concern for Afghan women, foreign governments and multiple human rights organisations that are fearful it will be repeated again.

Second, Australia, the US and their western allies devoted considerable military resources to overthrowing the Taliban following the September 11 2001 terror attacks. For Australia and others, the Taliban had effectively lost their right to govern following their support for, and harbouring of, Osama bin Laden.

Read more:
Explainer: what is shariah law and what version of it is the Taliban likely to implement?

With the looming 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks at the forefront of public consciousness, especially following the very public decision of the Biden administration to end the so-called “forever war”, there is understandable caution in hastily recognising a Taliban government.

How then will Australia act? Canberra will not wish to take the lead in this matter. There may even be a co-ordinated strategy by certain western countries.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested any recognition of the Taliban may be conditional. The formation of a stable government will be the first priority. Other conditions could include a clear and verifiable commitment to human rights, especially respect for women’s rights, and the ability of Afghans and other citizens to freely leave the country.

A period of initial de facto recognition of the Taliban is probable, which could over time give way to formal recognition.

Australia will need to have a clear policy framework to deal with these dynamics. For better or worse, Australia has been intimately connected with Afghanistan’s future now for 20 years. The ongoing Australian government investigation into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan by Australian Defence Force personnel will keep that relationship in the public eye for years to come.

To ensure those war crimes investigations and the associated in-country gathering of legally admissible evidence is not jeopardised, Australia will need to learn eventually to work with whichever government oversees Afghanistan from Kabul.

At present, that is the Taliban.The Conversation

Donald Rothwell, Professor of International Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Philippines passes the 2 million mark as COVID-19 cases surge in Southeast Asia

Mark R. Cristino/AP

Michael Toole, Burnet InstituteSince May, the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread rapidly through most of Southeast Asia.

Of the ten member nations of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), all but Brunei have experienced recent surges, most of which have seen the highest number of cases since the pandemic began. However, these nine countries have experienced different COVID-19 trends.

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam reported very low daily cases throughout 2020 but are all now experiencing record surges in cases. Vietnam and Thailand are reporting 13,000-14,000 cases daily.

Singapore had a huge first wave in early 2020, reaching 1,000 cases a day, mainly affecting migrant workers. The country has now fully vaccinated 79% of its entire population but is currently experiencing a spike in new cases.

Myanmar had a surge in late 2020 and a lethal second wave this July, and cases are once again increasing.

Read more:
How a perfect storm of events is turning Myanmar into a ‘super-spreader’ COVID state

The three outliers that have struggled throughout most of the pandemic are Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Indonesia’s massive third wave is now in steep decline but more than 80,000 deaths have occurred since early June.

Malaysia began to report an increase in cases in September 2020, which led to a peak in February and then to a huge ongoing third wave.

It’s now the Philippines that is cause for most concern in the region. The country has reported more than two million cases and 34,000 deaths. The daily case rate is the second highest in Southeast Asia, after Malaysia.

Our World In Data/Johns Hopkins University

Read more:
Indonesia records its highest increase in COVID cases – and numbers are likely to rise again before they fall

The Philippines’ fourth wave

The Philippines has experienced four waves of COVID-19. The first wave was modest, reaching a peak seven-day rolling average of 316 in early April 2020.

From early June 2020, cases began to steadily increase leading into the second wave, which reached a peak of around 4,300 daily cases in late August.

The third wave reached a peak of 11,000 average daily cases in mid-April 2021.

However, it is the fourth wave, fuelled by the Delta variant, which is the most severe since the pandemic began and shows no sign of slowing. By September 8, the daily average had reached almost 19,000 cases.

How has the Philippines responded?

The Philippines government imposed strict restrictions early in the pandemic. In mid-March 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Metro Manila and adjacent provinces to be put under “enhanced community quarantine” (ECQ).

Under ECQ, mass gatherings were prohibited, government employees worked from home, school and university classes were suspended, only essential businesses stayed open, mass transportation was restricted, and people were ordered to observe social distancing.

When ECQ was imposed on March 15, the country had reported just 140 cases and 12 deaths. Despite the restrictions, the totals reached 5,453 cases and 349 deaths one month later.

The government relied heavily on the police and military to ensure all health protocols were followed. This led critics to denounce its militarist approach. Some civic groups providing assistance to communities faced harassment and attacks.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, 26 July 2021.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s early response to COVID was among the strictest in the world.
Lisa Marie David/Pool/EPA

Others criticised the government for taking a war-like approach that focused on identifying and punishing those who breached the rules rather than working cooperatively with, and providing financial support to, affected communities.

The term “pasaway”, a Filipino word referring to a stubborn person, became a punitive target in government communications. Amid the lockdown, the term pasaway referred to people violating government-imposed health protocols.

At the end of May 2020, restrictions were gradually loosened, entailing the re-introduction of mass transportation and the opening of government offices and certain businesses. At this time, the average had risen to 578 daily cases, the highest since the pandemic began.

Read more:
Why is Delta such a worry? It’s more infectious, probably causes more severe disease, and challenges our vaccines

The easing of restrictions was driven by economic factors – the unemployment rate had risen to 17.7% and 26% of businesses had closed.

Amid the gradual easing of quarantine restrictions, the Philippines saw an accelerating increase of COVID-19 cases. By the end of July, 75% of beds in intensive care units, 82% of isolation beds and 85% of ward beds in Metro Manila were occupied.

The fourth lockdown

Fast forward to early August 2021 as daily cases surged past 8,000. A new lockdown was announced in the National Capital District, which comprises more than half the country’s economy.

By August 20, Manila and surrounding provinces had been in either ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) or modified community quarantine for a total of 170 days since the beginning of the pandemic.

On that day, restrictions were eased even as daily cases surged to a record high of 17,231 and 317 deaths. More than 26% of samples tested positive, the country’s highest positivity rate so far.

The Philippines is trying desperately to spur activity in an economy that contracted a record 9.5% last year.

However, this risks having the health system totally overwhelmed. Many hospitals fear a mass exodus of nurses who are overworked, underpaid and constantly exposed to the virus. Filipino nurses are paid the lowest salaries among nurses in Southeast Asia.

What’s needed now?

The response by the Philippines has often been among the strictest in the world. However, the imposition and lifting of restrictions have not always been based on the caseload. The easing of restrictions has been driven by a desire for economic revival.

With only 14% of the population fully vaccinated and case numbers continuing to soar, the country is unlikely to vaccinate itself out of this outbreak before the health system is overwhelmed.

With cases now occurring in all 17 provinces, a clear national “vaccine plus” policy needs to be urgently implemented to save both lives and livelihoods.

This means while accelerating the vaccine rollout, there also need to be other preventive measures, such as mask wearing, physical distancing, attention to indoor ventilation, an effective test-trace-isolate system and, when necessary, localised lockdowns.

Read more:
From ground zero to zero tolerance – how China learnt from its COVID response to quickly stamp out its latest outbreak

The Conversation

Michael Toole, Professor of International Health, Burnet Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Afghanistan Update