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Explained | Will AUKUS upset the Indo-Pacific balance?

Why are China and other nations irked with the new Australia-U.K.-U.S. security partnership?

September 26, 2021 03:10 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:29 pm IST

Under AUKUS, nuclear submarines will replace the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins submarine fleet.

Under AUKUS, nuclear submarines will replace the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins submarine fleet.

The story so far: On September 15, U.S. President Joe Biden, along with Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson of Australia and the U.K. respectively, announced the formation of a new trilateral security partnership called AUKUS (Australia-U.K.-U.S.) . Its stated aim is to “update and enhance our shared ability to take on the threats of the 21st century just as we did in the 20th century: together,” according to Mr. Biden.

What are the terms of the grouping?

The summit announcement specifically referenced its intent for AUKUS to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific in the long term. Unsurprisingly, it drew a sharp response from China, whose territorial ambitions across the Indo-Pacific may well have been a key factor behind the formation of this group . Beijing’s consternation that AUKUS will “undermine” regional peace and “intensify” an arms race likely stems from the cornerstone of AUKUS: a proposal whereby the U.S. and the U.K. will transfer technology to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia within 18 months. A parallel development in the submarine deal was the rupture in diplomatic relations between France and the members of AUKUS because Canberra cancelled a lucrative $90-billion conventional submarine purchase order placed with Paris and opted instead for the nuclear-powered, but not nuclear-armed, submarine fleet .

Editorial | Another grouping: On AUKUS and India

Will AUKUS be a game changer?

The short answer is that it is unlikely, and the reasons are several. First, the U.S., as a leading global military power, already has a strong presence in the Indo-Pacific, especially in a grouping that includes Australia, India, and Japan — the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad . This involves joint military presence, and a wide array of war games and more in the region. Similarly, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are members of Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing alliance, which also has regional security implications. It is unclear what additional signalling could be achieved through the new trilateral security arrangement that does not fall within the ambit of the Quad, or in the economic realm by deepening the close ties between Washington and ASEAN. This assessment is consistent with India’s response to the creation of AUKUS , which saw Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla say, “From our perspective, this is neither relevant to the Quad nor will it have any impact on its functioning.” Secondly, AUKUS will not likely deter Beijing’s strategic calculus across the region, particularly relating to its maritime ambitions and territorial expansionism. The one element of AUKUS that has potential to cause a recalibration of China’s plans in this realm is the nuclear-powered submarines. The countries that have such submarines operational are the U.S. (68), Russia (29), China (12) the U.K. (11), France (8) and India (1). Given this balance, which implies Chinese dominance across the Indo-Pacific, the effect of AUKUS facilitating the development of a nuclear fleet for Australia may tip the scales the wrong way, perhaps by heightening Beijing’s anxiety over its nuclear-powered submarine fleet. Should this fuel an arms race in the region, it will raise the stakes over strategic flashpoints such as the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Does India stand to gain from this development?

Notwithstanding its professed indifference towards AUKUS and stronger reliance on the Quad, New Delhi may indeed derive secondary benefits from having three advanced nations with arguably the most sophisticated military know-how in the world coming together to support a free and open Indo-Pacific. Given the inroads that Beijing has made in recent decades with its Belt and Road Initiative, including through projects or proposals for infrastructure development in Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and beyond into Central Asia, fears in South Block over ‘encirclement’ by China may be partially mitigated by AUKUS. The catch, however, is that it would likely be well over a decade before the submarine construction plans in Adelaide come to fruition and Australia operationalises a nuclear-powered fleet. To what extent and in what direction the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific would have shifted by then remains to be seen. From New Delhi’s perspective, the business-as-usual approach is the best answer to such ambiguities: it implies that India will work with the transnational institutional arrangements in place, roping in like-minded nations into symbiotic partnerships, and calibrate future alliance plans to evolving security situations across one of the most complex strategic ecosystems in the world.

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