AUKUS, QUAD and China: Indo-Pacific as new theater

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chhaya

China’s President Xi Jinping could not be faulted for privately feeling mighty pleased at one level that five countries, one of them still a superpower, one a has-been superpower, one a wannabe superpower, one which does not want to be a superpower even while wanting to be and one never-gonnabe-superpower, have to join hands to contain his country’s perceived global threat.

Barely nine days before the first in-person summit between the United States, India, Japan and Australia known as the QUAD also broadly aimed at China, US President Joe Biden on September 15 joined Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison to announce a trilateral security partnership to confront Beijing.

Between them these five countries account for some 1.8 billion people as against China’s 1.44 billion and thereby hangs a tale about how geopolitics works.

AUKUS includes helping Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines and patrol the Pacific where the Chinese are constantly flexing their muscles. That takes care of the reference to a current superpower (America), a has-been superpower (Britain) and never-gonnabe-superpower (Australia.) That still leaves the wannabe superpower which would be India and Japan, the one which does not want to be a superpower even while wanting to be.

India fits in a somewhat different context here. India along with Japan make up what is known as the QUAD, a quadrilateral arrangement with America and Australia.

It is interesting that Biden announced this trilateral security partnership barely nine days before the QUAD leaders, Biden, Morrison, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga meet for an “in-person” summit in Washington on September 24. One of the overarching objectives of the QUAD is also to confront and contain China.

So Xi’s strongman impulses may find deep satisfaction that five countries feel compelled to gang up against him. That may or may not be true but the optics of these two arrangements would play well within China’s assertively nationalistic Communist Party cadres whose number touch a staggering 95 million. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose members can rival the Chinese Communists in professing nationalism, has a bigger membership base.

The trilateral security partnership does have the potential to confuse the mandate of the QUAD and that too coming as it did just days before the latter’s summit. It would be interesting to see how Tokyo would perceive Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines. Just as a clarification, these are not nuclear-armed submarines but nuclear-propelled ones.

In agreeing to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, the US has made a rare exception to its domestic policies. Perhaps the last time it did so was in 1958 when it did it for the United Kingdom. Once Australia deploys the new submarines, it will be the only navy other than the US to have nuclear-powered submarines in China’s proximity. It is most definitely a significant challenge to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.

It is true that Australia and Japan are allies now even as Australia’s once-strong relationship with China has hit its nadir. But remember in international diplomacy there are no permanent friends or foes. There are only permanent national interests.

One of the dangers of this trilateral and quadrilateral comings together is that it could also fuel China’s paranoia and might provoke it to do something dramatic. The easiest place for it do something dramatic is with India being its next-door neighbor. It is a delicate balance for New Delhi to be part of the QUAD even while professing to have good working relations with Beijing. China does not yet have a matching security partnership except for its unequal ties with Russia, a shadow of the former Soviet Union. Pakistan, notwithstanding its nuclear weapons, is only just a poodle here.

The most extraordinary fallout of AUKUS has been how it has enraged France which had a $66 billion dollar submarine deal with Australia that has been upended by the AUKUS deal. The France-Australia deal was signed in 2016 when Canberra chose France over Germany and Japan to replace its navy’s six Collins-class submarines which will reach the end of their service life in 2036. The deal was for 12 diesel-electric submarines. The fact that AUKUS gives Australia nuclear-powered submarines is of great consequence as it positions itself to patrol the waters of the Indo-Pacific which China dominates.

At some level France’s rage is rooted in the fact that its military-industrial complex lost out to the original military-industrial complex, namely the United States. The cancellation of the deal has so triggered Paris and President Emmanuel Macron that he called Prime Minister Modi on September 21 during which the two agreed to jointly act in the Indo-Pacific region. The two sides said the leaders agreed to “act jointly in an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific area”. Whether part of that includes France supplying India with submarines is not yet known but it is not altogether inconceivable. After all, Paris has to make up for the loss it has suffered by the Australian cancellation.

Paris has already been a key player in India’s defense sector having supplied New Delhi with 36 French Rafale fighter jets in a controversial multibillion-dollar deal with the Modi government tainted by allegations of brazen corruption. The Modi government has, of course, denied the allegations.

With AUKUS and the QUAD, the Indo-Pacific has quickly become the new theater where global powers seem set to butt their military heads. With Washington out of Afghanistan, its military has some extra bandwidth in the eventuality of a confrontation with China, something Beijing whose economy is showing clear signs of slowing down.

The QUAD summit’s behind-the-scenes action would be rather interesting to watch coming as it does in the aftermath of the awkwardly named AUKUS.