After the chaotic and humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington made the stunning AUKUS announcement, which was followed by the Quad in-person summit in Washington. AUKUS proposes to equip Australia with submarines powered by nuclear propulsion. The US has shared this technology with only one country so far: the UK. The day after the summit, the US sprung another surprise by concluding a deal with China. Meng Wanzhou—the Chinese heiress and daughter of Huawei’s founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei, a former PLA officer who made Huawei a telecom giant—was released from Canadian custody. Meng was accused of violating some laws and held in detention in Canada since 2018, at the request of the US.
China reciprocated by releasing two Canadians, detained on dubious charges, as a part of its hostage diplomacy. Huawei, a Chinese state-backed company, has made its mission to capture global telecom networks and Meng was spearheading it. Like the BRI, China’s aggressive push to dominate network infrastructure via Huawei created global suspicion that the PLA was using these telecom networks for technical espionage. Coming in quick succession, these events helped mitigate the growing concern about US retreat into isolationism and shunning global responsibilities.
AUKUS, the Quad summit and the release of Meng from detention are separate but interlinked strands in the growing geopolitical and geoeconomic flux churning the Indo-Pacific. If her release was a concession, then AUKUS was a poke in the eye for China. Both Quad and AUKUS are responses to China’s aggressive expansionist policies in the economic and military sectors, making the Indo-Pacific the primary arena for global strategic competition and adaptation. While the pandemic had dampened global strategic initiatives, its waning has coalesced opinion in many nations about putting restraints on China. The WHO has formed a new group to reopen the enquiry into the origin of the coronavirus. China will not be amused.
Expectedly, AUKUS angered France, which lost a multi-billion-dollar contract to build conventional submarines for Australia. But France remains supportive of Quad. India’s reaction to AUKUS was measured but China’s negative reaction was a clear indication of its discomfiture. India has put some distance between Quad and AUKUS due to her long-standing policy of not joining military alliances.
AUKUS adds another layer of deterrence against China. By attempting to delink Quad from AUKUS, India is also signalling to China that she is keeping her options open on joining military alliances targeting Beijing. India is still having the option of normalising ties with China. Quad suits India and AUKUS gives space to a potential expansion and the military alliance may include Japan at some stage. AUKUS creates another group among traditional allies and Australia acquiring nuclear-propelled submarines will not breach its commitment as a signatory of the NPT and gives it deterrent capability against China’s expanding naval power.
The post-Summit “spirit of the Quad” joint statement largely concentrates on global issues like vaccines for Covid, climate change, infrastructure, cyberspace, supply chains, and cooperation in space and emerging technologies. Quad has been low-key in the security domain but this dimension is clear when the statement says “we recommit to our partnership, and to a region that is a bedrock of our shared security and prosperity—a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is also inclusive and resilient”. The Quad statement recommits members to “promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”.
The statement specifically mentions the East and South China Seas in the context of maintaining a rules-based maritime order and collaboration in promoting maritime security. The security dimension is unmistakable. Reading between the lines one cannot miss the subtext that refers to China and this has spurred strategic observers to declare prematurely that it is a declaration of Cold War 2.0. While Quad has stayed away from announcing any military dimension to its vision statement, the Malabar naval war-gaming and bilateral exercises are indicators that the Quad members are prepared to act together in the military domain, if the situation so demands.
AUKUS is likely to strengthen the military dimension, contrary to the belief that it undercuts Quad. Quad has doffed its hat to “ASEAN Centrality” as a measure of assurance to the traditional default position of the Asian group of avoiding taking sides. Some members of ASEAN like the Philippines, however, understand its potential and have welcomed AUKUS. Other ASEAN members are more circumspect, fearing China’s reaction, though several of them like Indonesia and Malaysia have been at the receiving end of China’s expansionist forays into their air space and territorial sea. ASEAN countries are reluctant to choose sides, given their substantive economic ties with China and membership of RCEP.
Curiously, the initial Russian reaction was cautious and the Kremlin first claimed it needed to study the objectives of AUKUS and Quad. Later, reactions surfaced about concern over breach of NPT and a new arms race. Russian NSA Nikolai Patrushev called AUKUS “a prototype of an Asian NATO”, a term used by China earlier, to target both Beijing and Moscow. Russia has moved closer to China in its reaction to AUKUS and Quad. China-Russian defence collaboration has expanded significantly in the last decade. Russia has world-class expertise in nuclear-propelled submarines; it may find opportunities to sell them to nations like India that have been operating nuclear-propelled submarines leased from Moscow. In the worst-case scenario, Russia and China may team up to form a maritime coalition against AUKUS.
Quad has finally emerged out of hibernation and near irrelevance. The moot point is to find synergy between Quad, AUKUS, EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and also ASEAN. The business of strategic balancing in the Indo-Pacific is now being scripted seriously. The US has clearly set its sights on the goal of balancing China. Though France has been deeply angered by AUKUS, she will not abandon her Indo-Pacific strategic interests. Other European nations will eventually follow the American lead. China now finds that Quad will not disappear like “sea foam”. The task of balancing China has moved centre stage and India will be an indispensable part of this strategic balancing. Other Asian nations will have to face the dilemma of choice and face the inevitable undermining of ASEAN centrality. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Japan and India join AUKUS in future and that the former might also deploy nuclear-propelled submarines. In the extreme scenario, both Australia and Japan may walk out of the NPT and acquire nuclear weapons. The ball is in China’s court. The Indo-Pacific great game has begun and it is going to be a long one.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
Former Ambassador and Secretary in MEA, and Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi