The irony is striking. They are all supposed to be united as ‘liberal democracies’ against the Chinese dragon, which is ever-growing in their reckoning. Yet, it is China that has reasons to laugh and make merry. For on the sidelines, Western allies in and out of NATO are looking to outsmart one another to get counted as the existing or emerging leader of the grouping that is still in the making.
No other construct explains the minor diplomatic imbroglio kicked up by France after the US, UK and Australia announced the AUKUS, describing it as a military alliance. Unlike the Quad, whose various elements were constructed and/or de-constructed in public and more like the India-US defence pact of 2005, AUKUS has surprised the world due to the secrecy involved in its formation and announcement. When China, as the common target, has all the time to readjust itself to yet another emerging reality, it is the allies of the AUKUS that feel peeved and upset.
The question is if the three nations could have created the AUKUS without hurting France, a traditional European power and trans-Atlantic NATO partner of two among the three AUKUS nations barring Australia. The question also arises if the new grouping was created to confer greater strategic legitimacy to the UK post-Brexit, or as a cover for the US to share nuclear submarine technology with Quad member Australia, accompanied by the cancellation of the latter’s $66-billion French deal for conventional submarines.
The move is also a clear message that the US is not afraid of what Putin keeps packaging as a ‘resurgent’ Russia nor the risk of weakening, if not breaking, the NATO through such an unprecedented sleight of hand that the US is known for. Washington had earlier reserved such treatment, yes, for Russia, when the US secretly signed a defence pact with India in 2005.
In a way, that move was a return compliment for the forgotten Indo-Soviet defence cooperation agreement in August 1971, which served a critical purpose during the historic Bangladesh War later that year. On the occasion, the US was backing Islamabad against New Delhi and was ready to deploy the Seventh Fleet carrier group to try and change the course of the war—but only after the proverbial last minute.
Post-AUKUS statements from Team India could at best hope to reaffirm for the majority of Indians that they had nothing to fear from the new alliance. They knew it already and by instinct. But it could not cover up New Delhi’s surprise, if not shock, at not being taken into confidence, even remotely, on the emerging AUKUS deal. For India, this alone has revived fading memories of the eternal strategic question: Is the US a trustworthy and strategic ally like the Soviet Union used to be?
The US knows that the ruling class and the government in any democracy cannot manage public opinion after a point. In this case, Washington may have felt elated and confident at being able to ‘manage’ the political class in India through the post-Cold War era much better than before. But that seems to have made the US overconfident to be seen as riding roughshod over the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is the single most popular leader in the country in more than a quarter of a century.
In an unprecedented way, Modi and his government made, through surgical strikes, foreign and security policy a part of the nation’s electoral agenda. Maybe it has not attracted as much negativity as the Bofors gun deal did for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress leadership in the elections of 1989, but with surgical strikes etc., Modi has made security policy and strategic alliance a part of the electoral narrative in the country, such that it will be difficult for him to dismount at will.
For observers of the Indian strategic scene, the secrecy surrounding the AUKUS deal should come as no great surprise. Exactly a year earlier, in September 2020, the US had signed a defence cooperation treaty with India’s neighbour, the Maldives. This was reportedly done without taking New Delhi into confidence. If such a deal had been struck by the Soviet regime, it would have been only at the behest of India. That is the level of confidence Indians still have for Moscow when compared to Washington. It is another matter that the only time when the Soviet Union failed to consult India or abide by post-facto Indian indications, it had got dismembered in the quicksands of Afghanistan.
It might not have been as bad for the US in Afghanistan; yet, the final drawdown and the bloodless Taliban takeover does bring back to memory the unilateral Indian offer of then Prime Minister Vajpayee for the US to operate out of New Delhi to target Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida. They preferred Pakistan, as always, and the results are there for the whole world to see.
It was not the first time, either. As coincidence would have it, it was again on the Maldives that the US had begun testing New Delhi’s proverbial ‘Indian patience’ as it negotiated a defence pact with the short-lived Waheed government in Male (2012-13), again behind New Delhi’s back. Earlier, the US had reportedly signed the more basic ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) with the Maldives, taking a similar route.
The Manmohan Singh government was at the helm in New Delhi, on both occasions. If America’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Maldives did not go through in 2013, it was not directly due to India feeling betrayed; rather it was mostly because of the internal dynamics of the Maldivian domestic politics of the time.
The US and its Quad allies had made post-Cold War India feel inadequate as a regional power that they had independently begun making inroads into South Asia, which the world had regarded and respected as our traditional sphere of influence. With the Quad, India and Indians hoped all of it would stop and that New Delhi could also count on a large military alliance to fend off China.
The reality was that the Quad would have worked for India only in the Indian Ocean and not where the Indian security concerns mattered the most—along the long land borders with China and Pakistan, and up north and far away from the seas, with the Taliban.
Now, the AUKUS and the accompanying American declaration/reiteration that Quad is not a military alliance comes in contrast to what Indians had assumed it to be. After all, India has signed multiple foundational agreements with the US, supposedly for that purpose. All of it has since caused more than eyes to rise, foreheads to frown and brains to strain, all of them Indian.
N Sathiya Moorthy
Distinguished Fellow & Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation(firstname.lastname@example.org)