AUKUS roils the Indo-Pacific
The strategic implications of AUKUS for the geopolitics of the extended Indo-Pacific region in general, and the maritime domain in particular, are significant and multi-layered
United States (US) President Joe Biden unveiled AUKUS — the acronym for trilateral security cooperation between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the US — on Wednesday. At a joint press event, the leaders of the three nations announced that Australia would soon acquire conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines for its navy with the help of the other two countries. Canberra has decided to cancel a submarine deal with France, much to the dismay of Paris.
The strategic implications of AUKUS for the geopolitics of the extended Indo-Pacific region in general, and the maritime domain in particular, are significant and multi-layered.
This major policy decision comes just ahead of the first in-person Quad summit to be held in Washington on September 24 that will bring together the leaders of the US, India, Japan and Australia. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is travelling to the US next week for the Quad summit and the annual United Nations (UN) General Assembly deliberations, will also have a bilateral meeting with Biden for the first time in-person, since the latter assumed office.
The Donald Trump administration had accorded high priority to the Indo-Pacific in the US security calculus, and the Biden administration has retained, and further built on, this focus. The first multilateral summit, convened by Biden in March (weeks after assuming office), at the virtual level, was of Quad leaders. The common objective of the four nations was reiterated in a rare joint op-ed article in the Washington Post. As is the norm with Quad, no explicit reference was made to China but the four leaders (Biden, Modi, Yoshihide Suga, and Scott Morrison) shared their vision of an Indo-Pacific that is “free, open, resilient and inclusive”, and which, they added, has “increasingly been tested”. They also asserted that this had only “strengthened their resolve to reckon with the most urgent of global challenges together”. Despite his preoccupation with Afghanistan and domestic politics, Biden has clearly sustained the initiative and energy displayed in March on the Indo-Pacific.
To their credit, the AUKUS sherpas have worked swiftly over the last six months to bring Australia into the small group of nations that have nuclear-propelled submarines. Outlining the rationale for the decision to enable Australia with nuclear boats, Biden noted, “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 — and indeed the world — depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead.”
The strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific has been roiled by China’s muscular assertiveness in the South China Sea in recent years. Beijing’s blatant rejection of international law, the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), related to the maritime domain was compounded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy resorting to unilateral muscle-flexing to advance its own interpretation of historical territorial claims over disputed waters. Smaller Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) neighbours were intimidated by this belligerence and China has defiantly contested the “free and open Indo-Pacific” formulation of the global community.
Quad nations have been consistent in upholding the principle of freedom of navigation, as contained in UNCLOS, at the political and diplomatic levels. However, there had been much speculation over whether the US, in partnership with like-minded nations, would be able to lend this principle any tangible military profile – or whether it would be limited to talking points?
AUKUS is the first step that conveys the US resolve to punctuate the maritime domain in a manner that will not only protect Australia’s core security interests, but shape the regional strategic environment. A nuclear submarine has reach and stealth that is of a much higher order than a conventional diesel boat, and will be able to ensure a very high degree of sea-denial to any potential adversary.
Historically, major power contestation has been influenced by sea-power in a definitive manner. Beijing has been cognisant of this tenet, as also of its own maritime vulnerabilities and geopolitical constraints.
By providing nuclear propulsion assistance to Australia, the US is making a rare exception (as it did with the UK in 1958) to its domestic policies. Barring the US, there is no other navy that has nuclear submarines in China’s proximity, and the inclusion of Australia into this category will inhibit the PLA Navy in a variety of ways.
China has castigated the US for building “exclusionary blocs targeting and harming the interests of third parties”, and accused Washington of being in transgression of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). This is chutzpah of a high order, given that China had provided assistance to both Pakistan and North Korea in their illicit nuclear programmes, against the letter and spirit of NPT, of which China is a signatory. But this is part of the multi-layered opacity that characterises the complex regional strategic environment.
On the same day that AUKUS was unveiled, the Korean peninsula was animated by ballistic missile tests conducted by both Koreas, with Seoul carrying out a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test. China has called for “restraint”, with Japan and South Korea remaining wary of Pyongyang.
While AUKUS has been cautiously welcomed by Japan and Singapore, France is incensed by the cancellation of its lucrative contract. India has chosen to remain non-committal for now. But there is little doubt that the Indo-Pacific teacup has been stirred vigorously by AUKUS. How China reads and reacts to the tea leaves will be critical for the peace and security of the region.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal