The Aukus Pact: Has the West Taken its Eye off Russia?

The Aukus pact

On the 16th of September, the US, UK and Australia launched a new security pact, labelled 'Aukus', which will leverage American technology to support the three nations' foreign policy objectives in the Asia-Pacific, namely containing the rise of China. However, the deal was greeted with fury by France, who's defence industry saw a $56 billion nuclear submarine contract with Australia cancelled. The US will now manufacture the submarines instead.

In response, France took the unprecedented step in Franco-American diplomatic relations of recalling Philippe Étienne and Jean-Pierre Thébault, their ambassadors to both the US and Australia respectively. Clearly incensed, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the former French foreign minister who negotiated the Australian submarine contract, commented that: 'There has been a lie, there has been things are not right between us'.

Despite tempers having calmed last week, with Presidents Biden and Macron clearing the air on a lengthy phone call, relations between the UK and France, arguably the most important intra-European defence partnership, are frostier than ever. France's Europe Minister Clement Beaune, although he was unsurprised that the Johnson government had endorsed Aukus, described the UK as having accepted 'vassilisation' by the US.

The three signatories of the pact will have known that their decision would be met with French outrage, but they believe that Aukus is a necessary step to countering China's expansionist ambitions in the Asia-Pacific. China's navy, the 'PLAN', has certainly grown at an alarming rate in the past decade, with it now outnumbering the US' by 360 to 297 in terms of battle-ready ships. Seemingly spoiling for a fight, the PLAN has been making regular incursions into disputed territories in the South China Sea.

Even more concerningly, Chinese state media has become increasingly vocal in recent years about the fulfilment of a 'one-China' policy, the (forced) reunion of China and Taiwan, which has put the Taiwanese government and its Western allies on high alert. A Chinese invasion would spark international outrage, not only because it would be a violation of the democratic will of the Taiwanese, but also because Chinese control of the island's world-beating semiconductor industry would be an economic nightmare for the West.

Yet while the rise of China is clearly a major geopolitical headache for the NATO alliance, and now the source of bitter internal wrangling, there has been one notable beneficiary: Putin's Russia. Squabbling in the West over the Asia-Pacific means that NATO's collective eye has been taken off its former cold war foe. Never one to miss an open goal, the Kremlin has been revelling in this new-found freedom, exemplified by its transparent attempts to absorb Belarus into a Russian union.

These attempts have been greatly helped by the West's sanctioning of the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's despotic regime. Intended to bring Lukashenko to heel, the sanctions have mainly served to undermine Belarus' export base, particularly in potassium chloride (potash), thus increasing its economic dependence on the Kremlin. Putin has been only too happy to oblige, providing Belarus with $630 million in loans until the end of 2022 and helping the country to close its energy gap. Military cooperation has also been stepped up with the Belarusian armed forces taking part in Russia's Zapad 2021wargaming extravaganza, and with the Kremlin sending over fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles to help Belarus sure up its Western border.

A Russo-Belarusian union is therefore a looming inevitability, and the potential consequences of such a development would be grave. Russia's shared border with the EU would lengthen significantly as a result, increasing the likelihood of a military confrontation with NATO, and at the very least providing Russia's armed forces with more territory to conduct provocative military exercises. Looking back to the days of the Trump presidency, American sanctions on China couldn't halt its economic ascendancy, and sanctions on Belarus have similarly failed to pacify the Lukashenko-Putin axis.

The West's foreign policy establishment often declares that the world is 21 years into 'the Asian Century' and China's extraordinary economic success, and clear expansionist ambitions, means that this view is in many ways justified. Yet the eyes of NATO members are so glued to the Far East that they are seemingly blind to Russian malfeasance. The result? Lukashenko's Belarus, isolated by Western sanctions and now cemented into Putin's orbit, providing the Kremlin with a launching point to cause havoc in Europe. Belarusians can only hope that once France and the Aukus three have reconciled that their attention might return to matters closer to home.

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