India is not a bystander in the AUKUS saga

Observers in New Delhi profess mixed feelings — some joy for Australia, but more commiseration with France

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:29 pm IST

Published - September 25, 2021 12:02 am IST

Submarine. High Resolution Digitally Generated Image

Submarine. High Resolution Digitally Generated Image

The announcement last week of AUKUS — a new security pact between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia — is making waves around the world. The announcement is significant not only because it involves the transfer of nuclear submarine technology to Australia but also since it implies the cancellation of an ongoing U.S.$90 billion project by France to manufacture conventional submarines for Australia.

Understandably, France is indignant. Paris has recalled its Ambassador to Australia, accusing Canberra of “backstabbing” and betrayal. When Australian and French Ministers met less than a month ago, French officials said there had been no talk of cancelling the deal. The two sides had even issued a joint statement indicating the continuation of the submarine programme. But Australia, it seems, had been secretly negotiating a deal with the U.K. and the U.S. Beyond Canberra’s unceremonious termination of the submarine contract, France is angry because it was kept in the dark about the discussions surrounding the new pact.

Editorial | Another grouping: On AUKUS

For observers in India, the AUKUS saga evokes mixed feelings. Many are happy for Australia — a partner in the Quad (of India, the U.S., Japan and Australia) — to receive top quality nuclear submarine technology from the U.S. and the U.K., strengthening China deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. But there is no mistaking a sense of commiseration with France, India’s foremost partner in the Indian Ocean. “Why couldn’t France have been taken into confidence,” many ask. “It would have prevented an unseemly spat between friends, all big players in the Indo-Pacific region.” Some Quad-sceptics see this as a sign of what the future might hold for India. If Australia and the U.S. could deceive France, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partner, they ask, what is to prevent them from doing the same with lesser allies?

New Delhi is uncomfortable

There is another reason why Indian officials are seeing this differently. There is apprehension that the deal could eventually lead to a crowding of nuclear attack submarines (SSNs/submersible ship nuclear) in the Eastern Indian Ocean, eroding India’s regional pre-eminence. The Indian Navy presently dominates the space, but its conventional underwater capability has been shrinking. An Indian plan to develop a fleet of nuclear attack submarines has elicited no offer of help from the U.S. that does not share its prized nuclear submarine technology with even its closest allies; all except Australia, evidently. Washington’s willingness to help Canberra build SSNs raises the possibility that Australia could deploy nuclear submarines in the Eastern Indian Ocean well before India positions its own. This is not merely hypothetical. The Indian Navy, the principal security provider in the Eastern Indian Ocean, is not building submarines at a pace commensurate with needs. Notwithstanding shared concerns over China’s growing submarine presence in the region, however, Indian officials are not comfortable with the prospect of friendly SSNs in India’s backyard.

AUKUS versus the Quad

It does not help that AUKUS has taken the focus away from the Quad. Regardless of how the Joe Biden administration frames the argument, there is no denying a sense of wariness in New Delhi. There is for one thing more than a subtle hint of U.S. favouritism for Australia in the new deal. The agreement suggests preferential treatment on the part of Washington for a close Anglo-alliance partner. A senior American official who briefed the media about the AUKUS deal last week underscored the “very rare” nature of the arrangement and the “extremely sensitive” technology that will be shared with Australia. “This is an exception to our policy in many respects,” he observed. “I do not anticipate that this will be undertaken in any other circumstances going forward; we view this as a one-off.” That leads some in Delhi to wonder why the U.S. should make an allowance for one Quad partner and not another.


The technology pursuit

While it has rarely received any submarine technology from the U.S., New Delhi has been accepting of American discretion on the matter. India has instead relied on Russia for nuclear submarine technology, including in the construction of the reactor of India’s first SSBN/submersible ship ballistic missile nuclear (Arihant) and in the acquisition (on lease) of a nuclear attack submarine. The Indian Navy’s indigenous SSN programme, however, requires a nuclear reactor more powerful than the one installed in the Arihant (a non war-fighting platform). Following the deepening of Quad ties, some in India were hopeful that the U.S. would consider providing the Indian Navy with nuclear submarine propulsion technology. The clarification by Washington that the deal with Australia is a “one-off” puts paid to Indian expectations.

There is now speculation that Delhi might consider seeking French help with nuclear submarines. There is a view that New Delhi must seize the opportunity to push France to transfer its nuclear propulsion technology. Despite the less than satisfactory experience with the Project 75 ‘Scorpene’ class submarine programme, India, some say, should accept French assistance with building an SSN reactor.


For the moment, however, India is being careful in its official response to AUKUS. The bottom line for New Delhi is that it cannot be seen to be taking sides in a feud among friends. France, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia are some of India’s closest partners, and Indian officials would like to be spared the awkwardness of having to support one ally over the other. Despite worries over the prospect that Australia’s nuclear submarine capability could overtake India’s own in coming years, Indian officials recognise Canberra’s need to reappraise its strategic environment and reinforce deterrence against China.

Likewise, many in New Delhi feel France’s anguish. The deal Australia just cancelled was a critical part of France’s struggle to maintain an indigenous naval industry, and a key component of its Indo-Pacific vision. India, by some accounts, would like to deepen bilateral strategic ties, and play a part in restoring French confidence and pride.

Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a retired naval officer

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