In less than six months, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – the Quad – is back in action. After the virtual leaders summit in March, the month of September saw the leaders of four major Indo-Pacific nations converge in Washington to deliberate on matters of common concern and to also signal to China that the platform which Beijing once described as “sea foam” is not only not dissipating but is gearing to play a more ambitious role. If the March summit was about laying out an expansive agenda for a still nascent grouping, the September in-person summit was about operationalising the common vision of the four like-minded democracies as they chart their policy priorities in an ever so turbulent Indo-Pacific.
Days before the Quad summit, the landmark security pact involving the UK, the US and Australia, that will allow Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time with the technology provided by the US, underscores the rapidly grouping realities are shifting in the Indo-Pacific. Australia will be joining the select group of nations that operate nuclear-powered submarines with the US, UK, France, China, India and Russia. It will also be only the second nation after the UK with which the US will be sharing its submarine technology.
In an extraordinary move, the US and UK are willing to export nuclear technology to a non-nuclear powered nation. Regional security concerns have been the main driver behind this AUKUS pact which is being touted as Canberra’s biggest defence partnership in decades involving AI, cyber and other cutting edge defence technologies. This was made clear in the joint statement, which described this pact as “an historic opportunity for the three nations, with like-minded allies and partners, to protect shared values and promote security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
For US President, Joe Biden, this pact “is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow.” The UK has been more categorical in its response with British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace making a case that with China “embarking on one of the biggest military spends in history” and “engaged in some disputed areas,” the UK’s regional partners “want to be able to stand their own ground.” For Washington and its allies in the Pacific, a new class of nuclear-powered submarines can be a critical value added in challenging Chinese military expansionism but will allow the three nations to operate more effectively together undersea across the Pacific.
The announcement of this major pact comes against the backdrop of a disastrous withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan that had raised widespread doubts across the Indo-Pacific about the credibility of American commitments in the region. This will go to some extent in assuaging these concerns as it ties America even more closely to Australia’s security mapping. It also underscores Washington’s willingness to take a strategic approach in working collectively with its allies in the Indo-Pacific as it seems more willing than ever to enhance their defence potential through the sharing of highly sensitive defence technology, something the US had been reluctant to do in the past. There seems to be a realistic appraisal in Washington now about the abilities of its partners and the help they need in standing up to the growing regional challenges.
This dovetails with the British desire to play a larger role in the Indo-Pacific especially after its exit from the European Union. The Johnson Administration is keen on projecting the idea of ‘Global Britain’ as the central narrative of British foreign policy post Brexit and greater engagement in the Indo-Pacific with like minded nations is a natural corollary to that. In July, the UK’s new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, sailed through the South China Sea waters despite strong denunciations from Beijing. More recently, China’s envoy to the UK has been banned from coming to Parliament in response to travel bans imposed by Beijing on British lawmakers upset about human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Strengthening ties with traditional partners like Australia and working in concert with the US is one way of garnering greater voice in the region.
Given the historic nature of the pact, it was not surprising that Beijing would respond strongly. In its official denouncement, China argued that the three countries “should abandon the obsolete cold war zero sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical concepts and respect regional people’s aspiration and do more that is conducive to regional peace and stability and development – otherwise they will only end up hurting their own interests.” Everything that China is telling other nations today, had it implemented in its own policies, the regional environment would not have changed this dramatically this soon.
But with the announcement of the AUKUS and the renewed push on Quad, it is clear that like-minded regional powers are now trying to evolve a partnership which will see closer alignment of regional policies and actions as well as greater integration of the defence forces. The message is clear: while the churn in the Indo-Pacific may have begun with Chinese actions, it is now the other regional players that are willing to set new terms of engagement with Beijing.