Will the AUKUS alliance eclipse the Quad?

By K N Pandita

The trilateral alliance among Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS), recently announced by President Biden from the White House, has given rise to two controversies. One is whether it undervalues and supersedes the Quad-4 that is presumed to be an important feature in the security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region. The second controversy pertains to the angry reaction of France to the alliance for her reasons and its impact on the policy and perception of the European Union.

First, we shall examine what is the declared objective of the AUKUS. The growing hegemony of China and her increasingly aggressive attitude towards the smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific region is taken as a source of threat to the freedom of maritime trade in the Indo-Pacific region. Smaller island countries across the Indo-Pacific feel a security threat in China’s posture.

In particular, the deteriorating relations between Australia and China, and also the recurring appearance of Chinese warships in the proximity of Australian waters is a matter of serious concern for Australia. Of late Beijing has been squeezing Sino-Australia trade prospects to the detriment of the Australian economy.

After the cold war era, Australia did not feel the necessity of upgrading its naval strength to the extent of meeting an unforeseen eventuality. But with rather a disturbing prospect unfolding on the waters of the South China Sea, Australia is under compulsion of securing her shores against a creepy predator.

The AUKUS pact, a defensive-offensive pact in its character, will provide Australia with nuclear subs to substantially strengthen her naval power and also prove a deterrent to the aggressive and unpredictable designs of China. The signatories to the alliance claim that it is not directed against any country but is meant to ensure the free flow of trade through sensitive naval channels. In their view, it is a “game-changer” likely to usher in an era of stability and free and fearless movement of merchant navies. One–third of the world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca in the Indo-Pacific region. The US is expected to facilitate the delivery of nuclear-powered subs to Australia in 18 months.

As expected, Beijing has reacted furiously to this development in the waters of South China. It is a different story that when Beijing indulges in almost similar provocative activities along its Himalayan border with India, it does not appear to her a threatening posture whereas the formation of the AUKUS does.

Beijing pontificates that an “alliance among powers directed against a third country cannot survive.” The question may be raised whether in the light of China’s above assertion will her bonhomie with Pakistan pass the survival test? What is Beijing’s deep interest in providing road connectivity, infrastructure build-up, Gwadar Seaport and the war materials to a client state that has waged three wars against its neighbour and right now is running a proxy war? What is the objective of an understanding between Beijing and Islamabad that makes Beijing protect the Pakistan-based terrorist organizations while condemning identical organizations on her soil?

The crucial question is this: Now that AUKUS has come into existence does it not undermine the Quad-4 concept? India and Japan, the two other countries of Quad have been left out of the AUKUS. It gives rise to many speculations. Does not the US consider them significant to the security strategy of the Indian Ocean region? Does the US think that Japan and India are less vulnerable to the Chinese burgeoning ambitions and hence can be left out to fend for their selves?

That is flawed thinking. China has grabbed a large chunk of the Indian territory in Aksaichin. She is intermittently making intrusions into the Eastern Ladakh and all along with the Himalayan range right up to Arunachal. It is nearly a year that PLA contingents are standing with an eyeball to eyeball stance with Indian forces in Eastern Ladakh. And China has been threatening the Japanese northern Islands. There appears no justification for the US to be myopic about the Chinese looming threat over India or Japan.

Some commentators will argue that the US went ahead and launched with Australia and the UK the AUKUS, which appeared to be more like a security alliance, focussed on the development of joint military capabilities and defence technology sharing. Michael Kugelman of Wilson Center, a leading American think tank, said, “I don’t think it’s fair to compare this new pact to the Quad. The US alliances with the UK and Australia are much stronger and longstanding than the relationships between Quad members. And let’s be clear: the Quad isn’t an alliance. It’s a grouping of friendly, like-minded states.”

He added: “I see the Quad as a useful complement to the AUKUS. The Quad is focused on counterbalancing China through joint initiatives that revolve around dialogue and non-traditional security cooperation. The AUKUS by contrast provides muscle and military technology firepower. Given that both initiatives are meant, in different ways, to counter China, there are notable strategic benefits for New Delhi.”
However, Kugelman’s assertions cannot stand the test of history. There is a military component to the Quad – 4 though, as reflected in the Malabar exercises hosted annually by India. All four countries participated in 2020, strong with Australia returning to the exercises 14 years after the last time in 2007. Australia had backed out of the Quad around then, putting its viability under suspense.

It has to be noted that a protracted dialogue between Indian and Chinese commanders in the Eastern Ladakh region was underway. The two Asian giants have to coexist notwithstanding terminal disagreements on some irritating issues. Worthwhile to state that France and the rest of the European Union are intent on avoiding a confrontation with China, as they underscored in a policy paper titled the “E.U. Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” whose release was planned before the fracas.

It said the bloc would pursue “multifaceted engagement .with China,” cooperating on issues of common interest while “pushing back where fundamental disagreement exists with China, such as on human rights”.

Concerning the anger and disappointment of France for exclusion from the AUKUS, the New York Times of 16 September wrote: “France reacted with outrage to the announcements that the United States and Britain would help Australia develop submarines, and that Australia was withdrawing from a $ 66 billion deal to buy French-built submarines. At its heart, the diplomatic storm is also a business matter — a loss of revenue for France’s military industry, and again for American companies.”

“This looks like a new geopolitical order without binding alliances,” said Nicole Bacharan, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris. “To confront China, the United States appears to have chosen a different alliance, with the Anglo-Saxon world separate from France.” Perhaps the said researcher indirectly alluded to the assertion of Johnson, the British Prime Minister that “the alliance was between the three English speaking democracies.”

Underscoring its fury, France cancelled a gala scheduled for Friday at its embassy in Washington to mark the 240th anniversary of a Revolutionary War battle, wrote the NY Times. Now France has withdrawn its ambassadors from London and Washington.
Asserting that the Australian vessels would have nuclear reactors for propulsion, but not nuclear weapons, Mr Le Drian, the French Defence Minister said that France was not consulted on the deal.

“A knife in the back,” Mr Le Drian said of the Australian decision, noting that Australia was rejecting a deal for a strategic partnership that involved “a lot of technological transfers and a contract for 50 years.”

“Britain’s partnership with the United States in the deal is another irritant to France, after the British exit from the European Union, and Mr Johnson’s embrace of a “Global Britain” strategy aimed largely at the Indo-Pacific region. Longstanding French suspicion of an Anglophone cabal pursuing its interests to the exclusion of France is never far beneath the surface,” conclude the NY Times.

This episode should make the other two members of the Quad-4 think deeply about the situation that is unfolding in the Indo-Pacific region. India has so far tenaciously defied becoming a standard-bearer of any military alliance. Even after the debacle of the Sino-Indian war of 1962, India did not think it beneficial to align herself with one of the two power blocs. As a big Asian country, India will chart its own course of strengthening peace and pursuing the principle of peaceful coexistence.

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