A Trilateral Security Pact to
Counter China in the Indo-Pacific
What is AUKUS?
Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have recently announced a new trilateral security partnership – called AUKUS – for the Indo-Pacific. As part of this alliance, Australia will build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time, using technology provided by the US. AUKUS will also involve a new architecture of meetings and engagements of the three countries, as well as cooperation across emerging technologies like applied artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technologies and undersea capabilities.
Why are the submarines important?
Nuclear-powered vessels are vastly superior to their diesel-electric counterparts: They’re faster, can stay submerged almost indefinitely, and are bigger – allowing them to carry more weapons, equipment and supplies. Given Australia’s remote location and the fact that its subs may operate in waters stretching from the Indian Ocean up to Japan, these are big pluses. Until now, only six nations – the US, the UK, France, China, Russia and India – have had the technology to deploy and operate nuclear-powered subs.
Why France called its ambassadors from Australia and the US?
The AUKUS has created major fissures between apparent allies within the Western bloc. France was enraged by the AUKUS deal, which came as a surprise because Australia simultaneously cancelled a $66 billion agreement it had with Paris for conventional subs. It prompted Paris to recall its ambassadors to the US and Australia back home for ‘consultations’.
France, which is a NATO partner of the US and UK, has accused its allies of “duplicity” in scuttling its multibillion-dollar deal with Australia, with the French foreign minister saying that the relationship was going through a “serious crisis”. The AUKUS controversy illustrates that even the closest of allies can become estranged when commercial concerns are at stake. After all, the French defence industry would have gained a profitable deal if the Australians had gone ahead with it.
Strategic significance for the Indo-Pacific
The pact signifies the geopolitical shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but risks a new kind of arms race in the region. The long-term objective for this agreement was stated by Biden as: “We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve. Because the future of each of our nations – indeed the world – depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing ahead.”
One important dimension reflected by this deal is that the US and the UK are now strongly committed to having ‘free, open, resilient and inclusive Indo-Pacific’. The leaders of the three countries have asserted the alliance will help to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
AUKUS relocates post-Brexit “Global Britain” in the Indo-Pacific as the beating heart of the emerging global order with economic dynamism, international trade and the diplomatic center of gravity all pivoting from the North Atlantic to this region. The nuclearization of the Australian Navy could create ripples of unease in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries and spark a regional race for nuclear naval propulsion.
Why so much focus on China?
China’s rise has steadily become one of the biggest foreign policy challenges not just for the US, but for almost every neighbour of China, and democracies around the world. China’s rapid military development is a particularly acute threat to neighbouring countries such as India and the Philippines, which have active maritime or border disputes with China. But it also threatens the US military presence that has underpinned Asia’s security architecture for decades.
China’s global economic reach has also greatly expanded as state-owned companies buy up strategic assets, such as ports, around the world that could be harnessed in times of war. Its statecraft – spearheaded by “wolf warrior” diplomats – has also grown more aggressive, particularly throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
China has consistently lashed out at what it calls a “Cold War mentality,” denouncing such partnerships as anti-China cliques. Chinese officials argue that AUKUS will stoke an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. In their view, its members are trying not just to compete, but to contain China’s rise — to throw a military net around it in vital waterways like the South China Sea, and undermine the country’s economic development.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian criticized the three countries for being ‘extremely irresponsible’. “The decision to supply Australia with nuclear submarines,” he said, “seriously damages regional peace and stability, intensifies the arms race, and undermines the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” Zhao declared that any regional mechanism in Asia “should be conducive to mutual trust and cooperation” and “not target any third party or harm the party’s interests by forming an exclusive and closed small group.” He called on the US, the UK and Australia to “abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception … Otherwise, they will only end up shooting themselves in the foot.”
Relations have been getting tenser on all sides. Biden, like Trump, has trained his energies on preventing the world’s second-largest economy from pulling ahead. Beijing also has sparred with the UK over Hong Kong, and with Canada over detained citizens, while Europe has called China a “systemic rival.”
Reaction of other countries
India and Japan – the other two members of Quad besides Australia and the United States – welcomed the AUKUS deal, even though they’re excluded, as a strong signal of US determination to confront China. Malaysia and Indonesia expressed deep concern about the potential for sparking an arms race or aggressive action in the region, while Singapore took a more neutral stance. China’s ally North Korea lambasted the AUKUS pact as “undesirable and dangerous” and said the move to transfer nuclear technology to Australia underscored the need for North Korea to continue developing its arsenal of atomic weapons.
Does AUKUS augment or diminish the QUAD?
The Quad comprises India, the US, Japan and Australia. Fifty percent of the Quad comprises two-thirds of AUKUS. Members of the Quad are expected to concentrate on non-military initiatives following the creation of the AUKUS security pact.
AUKUS fits into a growing network of minilaterals crisscrossing the Indo-Pacific and rooted in shared strategic interests. There has been a boom in the number of minilateral partnerships in the Indo-Pacific in recent years, all arguably complementing each other with a shared sense of purpose.
While the AUKUS is not connected with the Quad, its objectives are the same as those of the latter. Both desire peace and stability in the region and are opposed to the aggressiveness of China.
While the Joint Statement of the Quad pointed out the “shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific” and the commitment to “strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion,” the main objective of the AUKUS, too, is the peace and stability of the region. But there is a difference in the two. The Quad is mainly an instrument of dealing with diplomatic and political dimensions involving all the four and there is a possibility of its extension with other powers joining it, the AUKUS is defense pact to build the capabilities of Australia. It can be placed in the same category as the bilateral defence agreements of other nations in the region with the same objective.
Impact of AUKUS on Middle East and South Asia
Despite its purported focus on the Indo-Pacific, the AUKUS will also impact the Middle East and South Asia. The deal, a consequence of the emerging bipolar competition between the US and China, will see Iran capitalize on the arrangement to further its nuclear goals. For if Australia can have more nuclear materials, so can Iran, Tehran will likely argue. And from there, a new nuclear arms race is set to get off and running.
In South Asia, Beijing could do an AUKUS-like deal of its own with Pakistan, with which it already has extensive cooperation in nuclear matters. This will be payback by Beijing to counter India, which Washington has, over the past few years, tried assiduously to rope into an anti-China alliance. This could impact the conventional balance of power between Pakistan and India and could force New Delhi to alter its nuclear doctrine.
AUKUS reveals how America and Europe are drifting apart
France has used the crisis to advocate for a stronger European foreign policy. EU Council President Charles Michel and European Commission Director Ursula von der Leyen have also joined Macron, accusing Biden of following in the footsteps of Trump and his America First policies.
The fallout from the AUKUS deal is already fuelling stronger calls for the EU to move toward what France calls “strategic autonomy” — a Europe that is a more capable geopolitical actor and thus less dependent on the United States for its security. The appeal of strategic autonomy grew during the presidency of Donald Trump, whose America First approach to foreign policy led many Europeans to question Washington’s reliability and its commitment to European security.
AUKUS pact as a sign of a new global order
The deal has upset China, but it also binds the US into European security, in a world where Nato may be less relevant. The AUKUS announcement highlights the shifting world order. This alliance is a game-changer that represents an entree to the crown jewels of military and intelligence capability. Nevertheless, it perhaps foretells the new global order that is unfolding at a rapid pace–with the US in one corner and China in the other! China may need not worry too much.
Will the AUKUS Pact undermine NATO?
According to a recent article in the Global Times by the Chinese government spokesman and some observers, the North Atlantic Alliance is destined to take a hit. Indeed, the strong exchange of rhetoric, the withdrawal of the French ambassadors from Canberra and Washington, and the cancellation of a ministerial meeting between the UK and France on missile collaboration could create the impression of a deepening crisis. As Britain and France constitute the two major European military powers in NATO, the alliance relies heavily on the long-standing co-operation between London and Paris to maintain its effectiveness.
Though the security pact between the US, UK and Australia did not cause a rift within NATO, it is not helping strengthen the alliance, either. Resolving AUKUS tensions is now key to the future of NATO. So long as tensions persist between London and Paris over the AUKUS pact, the prospect of the EU setting up its own, independent force will grow, a move that could have serious implications for NATO’s future.
The writer is a Civil Servant from the 47th CTP. He holds an MPhil Degree in Sociology and is currently working as a Section Officer