Geopolitical tension in the Indo-Pacific Region has been aggravated by the controversial purchase of submarines by Australia from the United States. At the root of the problem is the fear of Western countries and their allies at the growing naval power of China.
The reasoning is that Peking has 360 battleships and attack submarines at the end of 2020 compared with the 297 the United States has worldwide. China is expected to increase the number of its ships to 400 by 2025 and to 425 by 2030.
These data are furnished by the United States Office of Naval Information (ONI). According to Military Balance, the Chinese navy has in service 6 nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). These are quantitative details that do not consider the quality of capacity of the ships which is in favour of the United States, or of the global deployment of its 11 fleets around their respective aircraft carriers.
The US fleet has 21 submarines of which 8 are nuclear-powered and they are located in the Pacific off the coast of China (mostly based in Pearl Harbour). Between 2015 and 2019, Chinese naval shipyards built 132 as compared with 68 built by the US, 48 by India, 49 by Japan, 17 by France, 9 by Australia and 4 by the United Kingdom (of which 2 were aircraft carriers). In those four years, China launched a number of ships equal to the entire French fleet, the foremost European power. The head of the French navy, Pierre Vandier, believes that the Chinese navy absorbs 55% of the entire defence budget of the Asian power.
In the South China Sea, a conflict is developing over sovereignty with China on one side and the other coastal countries on the other. Of these countries, Vietnam has 6 Russian-made submarines, Singapore and Malaysia have 2 each, Indonesia has ordered 6 from South Korea and the Philippines is considering the creation of a fleet of submarines.
These countries have drawn up various treaties with Washington in their geopolitical war with Peking. Towards the East China Sea, Japan has 23 submarines and South Korea has 18.
These are two strong military allies of the United States close to China. About a dozen Russian submarines sail the seas around China: the Indo-Pacific, the South and the East. In line with the naval tensions in the region at the start of 2021, one of the French nuclear missiles, the Emeraude, navigated in the Pacific close to the zone of tension.
It was an unusual event and was presumably aimed at giving France a role in this geopolitical conflict.
However, on 15 September, an accord called AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and the United States) was signed. This alliance aims at articulating an action to contain China and support the countries which fear it. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Asia and Oceania have invested 528,000 million dollars in military spending, a sum that represents an increase of 2.5% compared to 2019, but which is smaller than that of the USA which amounted to 801,000 million and 40% more than what Europe spends.
AUKUS comes on top of another Western and Indo-Pacific military project: the QUAD Group. This is an alliance between the United States and Australia, and India and Japan. Shortly after he took office, Biden held a virtual summit with the heads of government of the Group to activate it with a view to containing China. However, now, contemporaneously with the announcement of the AUKUS accord, the contract worth 50 billion dollars that Australia had signed with France for the purchase of 12 conventional submarines was suspended.
The first negotiations between Paris and Canberra took place in 2016. France saw the contract as already agreed but Australia suspended it and replaced it with another with the USA for 8 nuclear-powered submarines for 66 billion dollars.
President Macron of France responded angrily and ordered the recall of his ambassadors from Australia and the United States.
The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stated that the change was due to the deterioration of security in the Indo-Pacific Region (made up of India, China, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia) and the access to the technology implicit in the new accord. These events were aggravated by the resumption of long-range missile launching by North Korea the same week during which the AUKUS agreement was published. North Korea launched two missiles from Yangdeok (70 km from the capital). They reached a speed of 800 k per hour and reached an altitude of 60,000 metres before falling into the East Sea (as the sea to the south of Japan is called in both Koreas).
On its part, South Korea responded with a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) of the Dosan Ahn Chang-ho class, capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Even if the South Korean president denied any connection with the North Korean launch, the conclusion was inevitable. A first South Korean test had been secretly conducted two weeks previously. South Korea thus became the eighth country capable of launching SLBM. The others are: USA, Russia, China, India, United Kingdom, France and North Korea.
The growing tension in the Indo-Pacific has had global repercussions. The Chinese government reacted strongly, accusing the United States of endangering the security of the region by agreeing to supply Australia with nuclear submarines ad of upsetting the balance of power to the detriment of the Asian power.
In addition, the European reaction was equally strong. It upheld the case of France against Australia and the United States over the agreement to replace the purchase of submarines. Various European leaders asserted that it is necessary to promote the “defence of Europe”, by Europe having its own military structure separate from the United States. It is worth noting that France is the main military power on the European continent and the only one with nuclear arms.
Rosendo Fraga/Nueva Mayoria