AUKUS will complement and not side-line QUAD The Statesman 21 Sep 2021 Maj Gen harsha Kakar

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AUKUS will complement and not side-line QUAD The Statesman 21 Sep 2021

          The creation of an Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) trilateral was announced by President Biden in a virtual joint televised event with PM’s Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, last week. The statement mentioned that AUKUS will ‘involve a new architecture of meetings and engagements between the three countries, as well as cooperation across emerging technologies.’ It also stated that UK and US would support development of conventional nuclear submarines for the Australian navy.

The US defended this trilateral on the pretext that it had to close ranks with Australia to counter a belligerent China, which has sought to enhance its presence in the South Pacific. A US official stated, ‘the creation of AUKUS, with its focus on submarines, is meant to send a message of reassurance and a determination to maintain a strong deterrent stance (against China).’ The Australian defence minister, Peter Dutton stated, ‘nobody wants to see a conflict but that really is a question for the Chinese.’

US-Australia ministerial consultations, held simultaneously, elaborated on AUKUS in its joint statement. It mentioned, ‘AUKUS will build on the longstanding bilateral ties among our three countries, including through deeper integration of defence and security-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains, as well as deeper cooperation on a range of defence and security capabilities.’ It added, ‘we reaffirm our commitment to uphold our international obligations and exercise a continued leadership role in support of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the nuclear non-proliferation regime.’ AUKUS emphasis will remain in cyber and Artificial Intelligence. It is a security alliance, while QUAD is a diplomatic one.

          The joint statement also backed the growth of QUAD mentioning, ‘(both nations) reaffirmed their commitment to working through the Quad to support Indo-Pacific partners to respond to the defining challenges of our time.’ It added, ‘The US and Australia are committed to regular Quad engagement at all levels, including the second Leaders’ Summit scheduled for September 24.’ This puts to rest any doubts on whether AUKUS would overshadow QUAD. To send a message to a belligerent China, it added, ‘Both sides stated their intent to strengthen ties with Taiwan, which is a leading democracy and a critical partner for both countries.’

          US and Australia are already linked through the ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-US) security treaty, though due to New Zealand’s declaration of a nuclear free zone, refusing permission for US nuclear powered vessels to enter its waters, the US cancelled its New Zealand obligation in 1986. Hence, a security architecture between the US and Australia was not a necessity. Creating AUKUS implied bringing UK, head of the Commonwealth, into the US-Australia group.    

India has not commented on the creation of AUKUS. Reports state that prior to the announcement, Indian Prime Minister, foreign and defence ministers were briefed on the subject by their Australian counterparts. Hence, India was aware of the developments.

          China, which has been terming the QUAD as an Asian NATO and adversely commenting on the forthcoming QUAD leaders’ summit reacted to Australia obtaining nuclear submarines. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, described the agreement as ‘extremely irresponsible’ while its state media warned Australia that it was now an ‘adversary’ of China and should ‘prepare for the worst.’ China also questioned Australia’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and accused the trilateral of ‘obsolete cold war zero-sum mentality.’ For China, enhancement of military capabilities in collaboration with the US by nations in the region is considered a threat.

          There was also a backlash on the trilateral within allies. France, which was involved in developing submarines for Australia lashed out in anger. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign minister, termed, the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France a ‘regrettable decision’ displaying ‘lack of coherence.’ It recalled its Ambassadors from Australia and US for consultations. New Zealand stated it will not lift its ban on nuclear submarines despite Australia developing one. Within UK, former PM, Theresa May, mentioned it may lead to Britain being dragged into a war over Taiwan.    

Simultaneously, the EU released its Indo-Pacific strategy which called for ‘multifaceted engagement with China on issues of common interest’ while ‘pushing back where fundamental disagreement exists with China, such as on human rights.’ The EU appeared to be seeking trade engagement with China while protesting on specific issues.

QUAD members have their own regions of interest within the Indo-Pacific. India is primarily concerned with the Indian Ocean, Australia with the South Pacific, Japan with the East China Sea and the US with the South China Sea, though the opposition remains a belligerent China. Apart from the US, no other nation has operating bases close to the South China Sea. The other commonality is that centrality of the region remains ASEAN.

The long-term intention of the QUAD is to draw in ASEAN nations, suppressed by overreliance on China for aid, trade as also its military threat. It therefore seeks to offer ASEAN nations what China provides but with better terms and conditions. Hence, QUAD is currently concentrating on vaccines, technology development and climate change alongside supporting infrastructure development in the Indo-pacific. Simultaneously, its joint military power, forays into the Chinese claimed South and East China seas, are a challenge to Chinese offensive approach and enhance confidence of nations facing Chinese military pressures. Other than India and the US, naval resources of other nations are weak.             

For Australia and the US, increased Chinese forays into the South Pacific are a matter of concern. Recent reports state that China secured support of politicians in Solomon islands, leading to the nation switching recognition from Taiwan to China. Solomon Islands are located close to Australia and are indicative of the reach of China. China is drawing Solomon Islands into its debt trap and could soon seek a military base there. It is to counter this growing challenge that AUKUS has been created.

Many strategists have stated that with the creation of AUKUS, QUAD may lose its relevance. Nothing could be further from reality. Both have their own place and AUKUS would supplement the military power of QUAD. Australian naval power would get a boost.