As dark clouds build across the Indo-Pacific, Australia hopes the Aukus pact will bolster security and confidence

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<span>Photograph: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images

A new trilateral security arrangement announced by US president Joe Biden will see Australia’s security ties with the United States and United Kingdom deepen, echoing the strong wartime bonds of the past, but with 21st century technology at its heart.

In addition to covering shared technology, industrial bases and supply lines, core to this is the agreement for US and UK support to Australia through the supply of nuclear submarine propulsion technology – a move that effectively sidelines the delay-plagued submarine program centred on the French Naval group’s bespoke design. Ironically, some of the delays relate to France’s difficulty in converting a nuclear submarine design into a conventionally powered one. They would be unimpressed, I imagine.

The choice reflects the heightened gravity of the great power contestational challenge which has put the security issues of the Indo-Pacific in stark relief. The US remains the world’s most powerful nation but China is fast catching up, with nuclear submarines being manufactured in southern China at an unprecedented rate. Post-Brexit Britain, eager to burnish its US security ties and bolster its “Global Britain” image, and looking for growing trade links in the region, is more enthused with Australia links than it has been for over half a century – when it walked away from the empire and joined the European Union’s precursor organisation in 1973.

Related: China will deride Australia’s nuclear shift saying it is America’s lackey – but Beijing has only itself to blame | Richard McGregor

Australia and the UK had worked together in the 1950s on atomic weapons testing at Maralinga and Montebello Island, helping the UK step up to become a nuclear power. Australia was sidelined in the 1957 negotiations for the US-UK nuclear power sharing arrangement. Still, Australia explored the nuclear option for power generation with prime minister John Gorton actively involved in laying the foundations for a nuclear power station at the mouth of Jervis Bay, south of Sydney. The footings are now rusting and overgrown but point to the seriousness with which the Australian government treated the issue in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Today Australia has one of the world’s largest repositories of uranium, but won’t use it or store it for others – despite happily exporting it to them and living on the most stable habitable continent with the most sparsely populated country on earth. The nuclear propulsion agreement portends a significant push to nuclear for power generation more broadly.

Replacement submarines have featured in several recent defence white papers going back for more than a decade, notably the 2009 one which featured submarines on the cover. Back then, Kevin Rudd as ALP prime minister mandated Australia should increase its holdings from six to 12 submarines, but they would be conventionally, not nuclear, powered. Nuclear power was seen as something politically unpalatable for the ALP and difficult to sustain because of the limited nuclear skills set in Australia and the questionable willingness of the United States to support Australia to sustain such a capability. Indeed, US and UK ally, Canada, had considered acquiring nuclear propulsion submarines in the late cold war years but faced strong UK and US resistance to the idea. That seemed to be a pointer for Australia too.

Australian strategic and defence policy has long struggled to reconcile the dialectic which has manifested as the contrasting fear of abandonment and fear of entrapment. Ever since 1942, when Australia last faced an existential crisis, Australian governments have looked to shore up ties with their “great and power friends”. For the last half century that has been principally with the US, but now the UK seems eager to return. How much the UK can commit in this space is still up for debate, mindful of its considerable challenges with an adventurist Russia under Putin and a squabbling Europe at their end of the Eurasian land mass.

Conversely, pundits have long considered the risk of entrapment – of being drawn into a conflict in the Indo-Pacific not of our making. The government seems convinced that increased self-reliance comes through increased reliance – on US and UK nuclear propulsion technology, industrial bases and supply lines. Hopefully that’s the right call, but it comes with risks.

This month we remember the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Anzus treaty – an alliance arrangement that avoided providing a direct security guarantee, promising instead “to consult” in the face of threats to the parties in the Pacific. This Aukus tripartite pact takes the Anzus security agreement to a new level. Being integrally connected with the US and UK through this new arrangement appears to be intended in part at least to bolster our confidence in not being abandoned. Conversely, as dark clouds build across the Indo-Pacific, the hope is that increased deterrence will bolster security, sending a message, particularly to Beijing, that force can and would be met. But the alternate view is that this bolstered investment in trilateral ties risks entrapment.

US president Teddy Roosevelt once suggested it was best to “speak softly and carry a big stick”. In recent times, Australia has tended to speak loudly and carry a small stick. This move will certainly help to make the Australian stick a bit bigger. Hopefully, in doing so Australia will become more adept at speaking softly too.

• John Blaxland is professor of international security and intelligence studies at the ANU’s strategic and defence studies centre

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