By Rityusha Mani Tiwary
The United States, United Kingdom and Australia announced a new trilateral defence deal (AUKUS) on September 16, 2021. The former two agreed to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines and deploy these in the Pacific region.
In recent years, China has demonstrated increasing power and influence in the region. The trilateral is touted as one containing China and aiming to outmanoeuvre it in the Pacific region, especially in and around the South China Sea. The agreement seeks to collaborate in technology, science, industry and defence forces to “secure the region”. The deal is significant due to three factors:
- Unlike conventional submarines, which are generally considered helpful for defensive purposes, nuclear-powered submarines go long distances, at a higher speed, without being detected which gives a nation the ability to protect its interests far from its shores. Therefore, with this agreement, the Royal Australian Navy will have the capability to go into the South China Sea. In addition, these nuclear-powered submarines will make Australia a naval heavyweight in the Pacific even though China has such submarines. And it will also increase the influence of the US in the region.
- Before this, the US has only shared its nuclear propulsion technology with the UK, following the US-UK nuclear power-sharing arrangement since 1958. The AUKUS is probably the most significant and extensive security arrangement between the three nations since World War II. It covers protecting underwater sea cables, cyber security, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and sea and air-launched missiles. It would also generate hundreds of high-skilled jobs, aiming at military-infrastructure expansion.
- AUKUS is significant in terms of shared technology. The conventional diesel-engine submarines have batteries that keep and propel the vessel underwater — their life can vary from a few hours to a few days. The newer Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines have additional fuel cells, which boost the endurance to remain submerged. The great advantage is its near-infinite capacity to stay dived. However, these can only be charged at on-land stations (not at sea), requiring access to military bases. A military situation could see the AUKUS harness the combined strength in the Asia-Pacific.
Region, Outside React
Echoing its concerns, China condemned the agreement as “extremely irresponsible”, which “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”. China’s embassy in Washington accused the AUKUS countries of a “Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice”.
In terms of China-Australia relationship, even though China is still Australia’s biggest trading partner with US$90.6 billion, their relationship has turned sour. For instance, earlier, in consideration of Chinese sensibilities, Australia had pulled out of the Malabar Naval Exercise with the US, India, Singapore and Japan after participating in the 2007 edition. However, Australia re-joined Malabar in 2020 — the first time in 13 years – joining its navy with other Quad nations. In addition, their political relations deteriorated after Australia backed a global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, New Zealand pledged to ban Australia’s submarines from its waters, in line with an existing policy on the presence of nuclear-powered submarines. Although a Five Eyes member (an intelligence-sharing Cold War arrangement between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to monitor the Soviet Union and share classified intelligence), New Zealand has been more cautious in aligning with the US or China in the Pacific.
The pact also left a bitter mark on France, which has now lost a deal with Australia to build 12 submarines worth nearly $90 billion. France has termed AUKUS “a stab in the back” and “betrayal of trust” and is upset as it is left out of the loop. Admittedly, the agreement has complicated relations between France and Australia and France and the US. It plans to pursue the fight over the contract with Australia, warning that breach of inter-governmental contract could lead to a complex legal battle and retaliatory measures like job losses. France has also condemned American behaviour as “brutal, unilateral, unpredictable and insufferable” especially for an ally.
Other states in the Southeast Asian region, like Indonesia, have already expressed cautious concern about AUKUS. Malaysia said AUKUS could provoke other powers to act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea. On the other hand, Singapore has been positive, while the Philippines has adopted a neutral stance.
AUKUS Vs QUAD or AUKUS+QUAD?
There is much perturbation in Japan and India owing to AUKUS. The two are a part of QUAD, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US.
As AUKUS is an exclusive alliance involving two out of four QUAD members in the region, prima facie it takes away the sheen off QUAD. However, there are four possibilities vis-a-vis AUKUS and QUAD:
- AUKUS will dilute QUAD and replace it in the region’s momentum and military heavy lifting
- Propelled into action by the formation of AUKUS, QUAD gears up and reinvents itself
- AUKUS and QUAD work in tandem with each other
- And there is a proliferation of dual nature (economic-military) alliances in the region.
Firstly, all four possibilities are likely to emerge in varying degree and scope, yet, will highlight the element of competition more than cooperation between AUKUS and QUAD. For instance, to what extent the US, Australia and the UK will compete for a lead in future technologies like AI and quantum computing, rather than pursuing them in QUAD, will determine the future of QUAD.
Secondly, AUKUS unambiguously implies a containment policy, leading to a security dilemma. Likewise, the further elevation of the QUAD security into a China containment front plays into an atmosphere of heightened security anxiety in the Asia-Pacific.
The four Quad participants have their reasons and agendas for pushing back against China. A much surer impact of the presence of both AUKUS and QUAD is further militarisation and a possible arms race in the region.
Rapid Militarisation of the Region
There are three broad faultlines in the Asia-Pacific:
- Territorial disputes involving five countries
- China-Taiwan issue
- North Korea-China proximity
The first one is where China, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines constitute the five countries with overlapping claims to territories in the Asia-Pacific. These territorial disputes spill over the domestic, regional, and national security concerns of these countries and the larger region of the Asia-Pacific. The territorial ownership extends each country’s exclusive economic zone, access to marine resources and fishing rights. The stakes are highly commercial.
On the other hand, the Diaoyu/Senkaku, Paracel, and Spratly Islands disputes within the East and the South China Sea do not impact trade/economic interdependence. The two phenomena have been operating independently of one another. Along with these faultlines, sharply deteriorating India-China relations along their disputed border has blurred the divide between the Asia-Pacific and South Asia.
There is rapid militarisation in the region due to these factors and China’s massive spending on modernisation of its military. In surveys by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, there is no let-up in military spending in the Indo-Pacific despite the pandemic. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute notes a 47% increase in defence spending in the Indo-Pacific in the past decade, led by China and India. Further, this pact augments Australia’s military base upgradation plans, which are to the tune of A$747 million ($580 million).
The International Institute of Strategic Studies singled out Japan and Australia, particularly, as countries that were increasing defence spending to take account of China. Tokyo, for example, is budgeting for record spending of $50 billion for 2022-23. Taiwan proposes to spend $8.69 billion over the next five years on long-range missiles and increasing its inventory of cruise missiles. It is also adding to its arsenal of heavy artillery. South Korea is actively adding to its missile capabilities, including the testing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Australia’s defence spending stands a tick over 2% of GDP in 2021-22 at A$44.6 billion, with plans for further increases. This excessive military spending from all the players in the region comes at a time when national budgets are already strained due to the pandemic.
Australia has been justifying its massive military expenditures in response to “unspecified tensions” in the Asia-Pacific. With AUKUS, it has officially joined a China containment front. In the process, it has yielded sovereignty to the US by committing itself to a host of military procurement decisions. The submarines will not be available for the better part of two decades under the most optimistic forecasts. However, Australia could base US or British submarines in its ports or lease American submarines in the meantime. In addition, Australia is committing itself to a range of US-supplied hardware to enhance the interoperability of its military with the US.
Strategic Shift in Regional Balance of Power
If China faces a security situation in the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait, in that case, AUKUS will affect its military preparedness or response. It does change the power equilibrium in the region. The US has been investing heavily in other partnerships in the region with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, India and Vietnam and may expect a positive reaction from these partners in the face of concerns about China’s growing power. The countries in the region may perceive it as a geopolitical shift in their neighbourhood.
The trend set by AUKUS may instigate other regional players to abandon their policy of strategic ambiguity in choosing sides with the US or China, putting the regional balance of power in flux.
The economic price of this imbalance is likely to be high for the region. For instance, the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) group has always expressed doubts about a US-China confrontation and choosing either. Therefore, ASEAN is likely to be uneasy with AUKUS undermining its centrality in shaping security in the Asia-Pacific region. The latter’s impact on ASEAN plus mechanisms and other multilateral organisations like East Asia Summit, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will need to be observed further.
AUKUS and India
India is among the six countries with nuclear submarines — the other five being the US, the UK, Russia, France and China. India has had the capacity since 1987 — with INS Chakra (decommissioned in 1991) and in 2012 with INS Chakra 2, on a 10-year lease. Both were Russian. However, INS Arihant is the first Indian nuclear submarine, operational since 2016, and classified as a Strategic Strike Nuclear Submarine since 2018. INS Arihant is important because it completes India’s nuclear triad, which means that the country can launch nuclear missiles from land, aircraft and submarine. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, in 2021, the US has 68 total nuclear submarines, Russia 29, China 12, the UK 11, France 8 and India 1.
With both QUAD and AUKUS jostling for strategic relevance, the two left out countries of QUAD — Japan and India — may feel peer pressure to integrate more with the US military alliance system in the region. Many other Asia-Pacific states can now be expected to review their military acquisition programme.
However, though there may be signs of momentary disarray and bickering in the western alliance in the Asia-Pacific, the realtime impact of AUKUS is Asia-Pacific’s worsening security environment. The thing for India to do would be keeping a clear and neutral head, so far as its partaking of gains of global integration for its people are concerned. India might just do well by succumbing to the compulsions of working together with and not against countries.
The containment angle in either AUKUS or QUAD brings extended security dilemma to India’s doorstep, over and above its outstanding border dispute with China, with possible spillover in larger South Asian region, both being unwelcome scenarios.
(The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi & Visiting Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi)
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