The month of September saw the annual UN General Assembly (UNGA) session as world leaders assembled for the in-person session after last year’s virtual sessions due to the severity of the pandemic. In a truly ‘earth-shaking’ development, the announcement of an alliance between Australia, UK, and the US—AUKUS—on September 15, just prior to the UNGA session, created a ‘geopolitical earthquake’ not just in the Indo-Pacific but even on the side-lines of the UNGA!
What is AUKUS, what is the difference between it and the QUAD, and how will it affect the power-equation in the Indo-Pacific, with a special emphasis on its effect on India, is going to be discussed amongst the strategists and geopolitical experts the world over in the months to come.
After the ignominious exit of the US troops from Afghanistan, also known as the ‘graveyard of empires’, it was expected that the US would lie low and lick its wounds before it started on another ‘mis-adventure’. While the last flight with the troops was leaving Kabul and the Taliban was completing the takeover of the country on August 15, it was expected that the world attention would now be focussed on Afghanistan for some time.
But it was not to be.
The new alliance was announced exactly a month later! This writer, however, is quite sure that the wheels of AUKUS had already been churning in the US administration. No major decision, like the announcement of such an alliance, can be made without due consideration of the entire pros and cons!
For the last two years, all nations have been struggling to meet the challenges that have arisen of the pandemic, all nations—barring one—China.
While it did have its fair share of problems, but how it faced them, what was the end result, is something the world will probably never come to know about. What the world, however, is aware of, is the rising hegemonic and aggressive behaviour of China in Asia, and more so in the Indo-Pacific.
The Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS), the provocative manoeuvres of the PLAAF and PLAN around Taiwan, combined with matching statements by the leadership, the confrontational statements being exchanged with Japan, the PLA moves across the northern regions of India and the military infrastructure build-up in Tibet, followed by an announcement by China of financial aid to the Taliban, almost immediately after the fall of the legitimate Afghanistan government, has riveted the focus, especially that of the US, on China. Hence the tri-lateral pact of AUKUS.
AUKUS is more defence and security cooperation-centric, unlike the QUAD, which initially was not so, but has ever since expanded its scope. What is of significance is that the US, trying to show its global leadership, included UK but omitted France, a leading nation of the EU, from the AUKUS, much to the France’s chagrin! The annoyance of France!
Under the AUKUS pact, the three nations, in an effort to counter China, have agreed to enhance the development of joint defence capabilities and sharing of technology, foster deeper defence and security integration, industrial bases and supply chains.
A first major initiative that has been announced is a boost for the Australian Navy; it would be provided with at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, but not nuclear-armed, with technological assistance from the other two members, namely the US and UK.
As a result of the announcement, Australia has cancelled a contract with France, worth almost $66 billion, to build conventional submarines – once again, causing much heart-burn.
With AUKUS now, the question arises—what is the future of the QUAD?
The QUAD, as the readers would know, is a strategic dialogue that commenced in 2007, amongst the four prominent democracies of the region—the US, Japan, Australia, and India. Immediately after the first dialogue, an unprecedented large-scale military exercise was conducted—Exercise Malabar—that was seen to be in response to the Chinese activities in the Indo-Pacific and its growing military and economic prowess.
The QUAD, however, lost its momentum with Australia withdrawing membership in 2007-08, presumably after a not-so-subtle rebuke by China; nevertheless, a bi-lateral or a trilateral Exercise Malabar, with other comparable military exercises, continued, with parallel security dialogues between the leadership.
In the years following the cessation of the QUAD, India too laid low, probably, not wanting to antagonise China any further, which was already upset with the initiation of the dialogue and the continuing military exercises. The QUAD restarted in 2017 and has had many meetings since then—five between 2017 and 2019!
China too, stepped up its efforts to minimise the spread and effectiveness of the QUAD by raising concerns against it with its ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and ASEAN nations. During the pandemic years of 2020-2021, the QUAD has moved to expand its scope to combat the Covid virus through vaccine sharing; it is also including climate and import of other technology in its agenda while exploring partnerships with the EU nations.
Reverting to AUKUS. While India may not have shown an over-enthusiastic response to the alliance, it is not to be construed as a lack of interest. India sees its Indo-Pacific partners, US, France, and Australia (and now maybe UK too, notwithstanding the controversy over Covi-shield vaccines), as helpful in maintaining a balance of power vis-à-vis China in the region.
India favours a rules-based world and regional order wherein China is made to follow international agreements, more importantly the UNCLOS, and will work diligently towards getting all like-minded Indo-Pacific and European partners towards achieving this aim. It may face some hiccups while manoeuvring towards this goal—such as France being unwilling to meet Australia after the cancellation of the order for the submarines—but will work on its strategy if it does not waver from the medium-and-long term profits.
In this context, it is to India’s benefit that the perceptions of the AUKUS members of China’s actions in the region match with its own. Since the violent clashes last year in Ladakh, India-China relations are at a low ebb and India is extremely suspicious of any Chinese actions in the region or any utterances by Beijing concerning the region. Under such circumstances, any nation’s stand against China would be to India’s advantage; any increase in combined capabilities will be both a deterrence for China and also the setting up of enhanced ability to provide a rapid response in the event of a crisis. Such combined capabilities of the AUKUS members, or any other nation—Canada, Germany—to name a few which have expressed interest in QUAD—would also be a boost to QUAD’s efforts.
Another potential advantage for India is France’s annoyance towards AUKUS, which could help in its defence trade domain. With France continuing to smart at being not included in the alliance and the subsequent cancellation of the Australian order for submarines, it may just consider to further its efforts towards securing more arms deals with India.
It is not just fighter aircraft platforms that India is looking for; India has ongoing indigenous programmes for an aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine, with plans to lease another one from Russia. If France does actively display an enhanced interest, it may trigger similar attention from the US too, which as it is, wants to reduce India’s dependence on Russian arms.
All benefits come with some hidden challenges; it is so for India too, in this case. The exclusion of France from this alliance, could be used by China to drive a wedge between the Indo-Pacific, QUAD and EU partners on the unreliability of USA as a strategic ally. What could worry India is that such frictions may affect sharing of technology and the subsequent supply-chains.
Another issue that could affect India’s interests is the fall-out in cooperation of these nations, specifically US and France, in multi-lateral forums and institutions. Although, early last year, France and the US did block a combined China-Pakistan sponsored discussion on Kashmir at the UNSC, this could be of concern now, post-AUKUS. India will have to use all its diplomatic finesse to ensure smooth sailing.
Initially the QUAD, and now the AUKUS too, was called by some as the ‘NATO pact of the Indo-Pacific’. Considering this, and India’s increasingly dominant role in the QUAD, questions are also being raised as to why India was not included in the latter and offered the access to new technology.
To put it simply, India may have a strategic partnership with the US, but it is not an ally, in the strictest term, as Australia is. While India has been given access to high-end technology, as in the nuclear deal or in the provision of military equipment, it remains a non-ally. On the other hand, Australia, as an ally is more likely than India to join any US efforts in the event of any contingency that may arise, say as in Taiwan Strait.
Notwithstanding India’s position as an ally or not, India is the pivot in any action in the Indo-Pacific, that could be initiated either by AUKUS, or the QUAD, or both. This concern, as it stands, should not be given too much prominence, since immediately after the announcement of the AUKUS, the US and the Australian administrations have given detailed briefs to India on their stand in the alliance.
Additionally, France too, has expressed it full commitment towards the Indo-Pacific, after a dialogue between the leaders of India and France. After recent meetings on the side-lines of the UN session, there appears to be no indication that the importance of the QUAD has been diluted. But to quite the contrary, after the first in-person meeting of the leaders of the QUAD nations at the White House, there has been an elevation with talks on a broader range of cooperation.
The writer is of the opinion, whatever it may be worth, that the QUAD is now firmly embedded in the foreign policy of the four member democracies, for which, China should be thanked for expediting the process. AUKUS has actually assisted the QUAD by taking part of China’s protests away from it; India and Japan can breathe a little more easily, and concentrate their energy towards developing their bi-lateral defence and security realms, may be even with some other like-minded countries of the region.
China, as aforementioned, should also be thanked for helping create a new security eco-system with the democratic nations of the Indo-Pacific. India will hope that no lasting damage has been done to the US-France relations so as to obviate any collaboration in the region. Without doubt, Indian diplomatic efforts would have to work overtime. Between the two, AUKUS and QUAD, there does not appear to be any major danger of either of them stepping on the other’s toes. As per the developments thus far, it appears to be a win-win situation for India.
How true will it be, only time can tell…
–The writer is an IAF veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda