In this article, Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, analyses the impact the creation of AUKUS will have on the Quad and on regional security and posits that both the groupings are beneficial and complimentary to each other. An Army Veteran who has earlier commanded an Armoured Division, the general is presently a Distinguished Fellow at the USI of India. A version of this article was earlier published by the USI of India.
One of the most analysed events in the geo strategic domain recently has been the new security grouping formed by Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA, called by its acronym AUKUS. Both the US and Australia are part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, called Quad, which has India and Japan as the other two countries making up the grouping. Founded in 2007 by the then Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe; the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney; the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard; and the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, the QUAD was revived in 2017 after a nine-year hiatus as China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy heightened security concerns amongst the member countries. The recent resurgence of the Quad is apparently driven by uneasiness with the rise of China and the security threat it poses to the international order, with some analysts also referring to the Quad as the ‘Asian NATO’, though that is obviously an exaggeration.
The latest face-to-face meetings of the heads of Quad countries was held on 24 September 2021, at the White House. US President, Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had their first physical meeting in Washington, despite the pandemic. Post the meeting, the Quad leaders stated in a media briefing that the Quad nations would work together closely and practically in maintaining the security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, would collaborate on cyber security and work closely in preventing the spread of the Coronavirus through the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to the poor nations of the Indo-Pacific region. There was no mention about possible threats emanating from China. On the contrary, the most significant outcomes of the recent summit were related to COVID-19 vaccine production, facilitating cooperation over emerging technologies and mitigating climate change.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated, “We also recognise that our shared futures will be written in the Indo-Pacific, and we will redouble our efforts to ensure that the Quad is a force for regional peace, stability, security, and prosperity. Towards that end, we will continue to champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”.
China has opposed the Quad ever since it was established. It views the grouping as an attempt to increase military presence in the South China Sea against them. There is no doubt that China has a dispute with India over unresolved lanz borders and also has a long-standing dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea. The question however is, why is China so alarmed when the grouping is not focused on security issues but has as its core concerns, humanitarian issues and enforcing the laid down international rules and conventions of the seas and cooperation based on shared values which has been constantly reiterated?
Also needing answers is the reason why the announcement of the formation of AUKUS was made just before the summit meeting of the Quad leaders and why Japan & India kept out of this grouping. Of the four Quad countries, US and Australia are military allies, so that ticks a major box. A key part of this agreement is the supply of nuclear-powered attack submarines to Australia, as a result of which Australia scrapped its diesel-powered submarine supply deal with France. The initial focus of this trilateral partnership will be on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities. With the announcement of AUKUS, huge ripples have been caused in the already turbulent waters of the Indo-Pacific. The answer perhaps lies in the nature of the AUKUS, which is a security alliance of three old allies who have fought together since the First World War. The timing, just before a summit level meeting, perhaps indicates that all partners were on board and there was no threat to the Quad.
Did the AUKUS alliance come about because of a perceived reluctance from India and Japan to be part of a defence alliance with the US and thereby, their inability to provide military muscle to the grouping? Is the US more comfortable dealing with old allies like the UK & Australia? Or is it a measure to overcome the weakness in the maritime security architecture in the Western Pacific? Do Japan and India have greater independence in their foreign policy and international dealings which is why they did not join AUKUS? There is also the question of Japan’s nuclear policy and India’s defence engagement with Russia including purchase of the S 400 missile defence system. Further, can India with its land border dispute be in a security alliance perceived to be anti-China? Or is it due to Western mindset being unable to fully understand an oriental mind represented by both India and Japan; unable to fully fathom the depth and complexities may be forcing them to be more circumspect. These are questions that will be discussed ad nauseam over the next few years.
Lastly, is the AUKUS an indication of de-securitising of the Quad? There are greater options open and more flexibility for both Japan & India by not getting into a very tight embrace on security issues with the US and this fact has now been recognised and addressed by the US. So can this changing geometry be beneficial for all countries involved.
China is the largest export market for Australian trade. Australia makes billions of dollars every year from tourism, education, and property investments by China. However, China has become increasingly hostile towards Australia since the latter called for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Relations between the countries have soured in recent years, with Australia blocking Chinese technology and investment in key infrastructure, and China using tariffs and other measures to reduce its imports from Australia. It is apparent that the Australian government does not want to lose the shared and historical values and ties with the US and UK at any cost, even if it means sacrificing relations with China. It has clearly made its choice.
One of the issues for keeping Japan out could be Three Non-Nuclear Principles a parliamentary resolution (never adopted into law) that have guided Japanese nuclear policy since the late 1960s, and reflect general public sentiment and national policy since the end of World War II. The tenets state that Japan shall neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons, nor shall it permit their introduction into Japanese territory. Japan and US are treaty allies wherein if Japan is attacked by China, then the US is treaty bound to defend it. But, there is still the issue of Japan’s pacifist constitution which will continue to hold back the full extent of military co-operation with the US and other strategic partners. On the trade front, China consumed more than 20% of Japanese exports amounting to USD 146 billion last year, becoming its largest exporter; incidentally China and US have alternated as its largest trading partner in the last decade.
Japan’s foreign press secretary, Tomoyuki Yoshida was quoted by Reuters as saying, “Prime Minister Suga welcomed the initiative of the establishment of the security partnership forged by the three countries…which is taking an important step for peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.”
Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, underlining that the Quad grouping and AUKUS were different in nature, and AUKUS, a military alliance, would have no impact on the working of the Quad, stated that the Quad was a “plurilateral grouping of countries with a shared vision of their attributes and values”. India has nothing to lose with the AUKUS, which poses no threat to India. In fact, it only strengthens the commitment of the United States to the Indo-Pacific, something that could only help the cause of balancing Chinese influence.
India is not in a military alliance in the AUKUS. However, it has the ability to make use of the strain in diplomatic relations between France and Australia over the latter cancelling a USD 90 billion deal for twelve submarines. France had beaten Germany to win the submarine contract with a diesel-electric version of the existing nuclear submarine, Barracuda. France apparently was open to the idea of converting back to nuclear power. India wants nuclear-powered attack submarines, or what is known as SSNs. It does have its own nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) in INS Arihant but SSNs are a long-standing demand. Is there a possibility of submarines coming from France after the furore of AUKUS; after all they have always stood by us and we are currently in the midst of equipping our Air Force with the Rafales. Greater bonhomie has been noticed between India and France with the Indian and the French Prime Ministers tweeting about strengthening cooperation and ‘strategic partnership’ in the Indo-Pacific. This has been underlined also in a meeting between the Indian and French Foreign Ministers, Dr S. Jaishankar and Jean-Yves LeDrian. In the meantime we need to build on our economy, internal cohesion and military capabilities. We should not sacrifice our self-interests. Convergence continues to remain even if there is some degree of divergence.
One of the issues of concern for us could be the increase in defence expenditure by certain countries in the Indo-Pacific to counter Australia’s defence spending which could lead to a spiraling expenditure by India to keep pace with their modernisation and capability enhancement. China has categorically stated that the move will intensify the arms race and will be “damaging regional peace and stability.
There is no doubt that the current moves in the Indo-Pacific are far too complex for a simplistic answer; clearly China is worried due to the potential bandwidth of the Quad, which has not downplayed the security dimension including both conventional and non-conventional threats. Presently, there is no reason to think that AUKUS has disrupted or undermined the Quad. As per simple mathematics fifty percent of the Quadrilateral represents two-thirds of the trilateral. What remains to be seen is whether this triangle remains within the Quad or outside it and to what degree it will shape the geo-strategic maritime space of the Indo-Pacific. The interplay will be revealing.
Top: PM Narendra Modi attends first in-person summit of Quad leaders in US
Centre: The four Quad leaders: (From L to R) Prime Minister of Japan Mr Yoshihide Suga, Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, President of the United States, Mr Joe Biden and Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Scott Morrison.
India, Japan, Australia and the US – the four Quad countries, in the Malabar Naval exercise conducted in November 2020 in the Northern Arabian Sea.