Prime Minister Narendra Modi will undertake his first post-pandemic international trip to the US to meet other leaders of the Quad – US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga – on 24 September. But with the Australia-UK-US, or AUKUS, alliance startling the world this weekend, several questions abound. Here are a few:
First, does AUKUS expand the Quad tent of democracies or does it diminish it? Second, since AUKUS is a nuclear submarine-based security alliance focussed on countering China and Quad isn’t – as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken maintained during his recent Delhi visit – is the US likely to concentrate its mind on AUKUS rather than Quad?
Third, is the US need to ally with nations to counter China a manifestation of its decline as a global power? (After all, if the US was so strong, why would it need to partner with others?) Conversely, with AUKUS and Quad leaders meeting in quick succession next week in Washington DC, is the US trying to burnish its credentials as a global power in the wake of its shambolic exit from Afghanistan?
Meanwhile, with France recalling its ambassadors to the US and Australia after Canberra cancelled the $60 billion conventional submarine deal with Paris last week – and French foreign minister Jean Yves le Drian decrying the plot as an exercise in “duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt”, some are beginning to ask why Paris is throwing such a big global tantrum.
Or, as they might say in Bollywood, France ko itna gussa kyon aata hai. Why does France get so angry?
Certainly, France’s fury against AUKUS has shaken the globe. But of that, in a moment. What is interesting in both the Quad and AUKUS groupings is that except for India, all the other nations have military alliances of one or another sort with the other.
In AUKUS, the US and UK are NATO allies – as was the rejected partner, France – while Australia and the US have a security treaty relationship. In the Quad, like the US and Australia, US and Japan have a security alliance. Only India stands alone.
Certainly, France is believed to be furious that the US pushed Australia to pick one NATO ally (UK) over the other (France). Certainly, the English-speaking world won against the non-English speaking world. Remember that the Five Eyes, the world’s primary intelligence-sharing alliance between the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — which is believed to have given the intelligence regarding security threat to New Zealand that made its cricket team pull out of the Pakistan tour – dates back to the Second World War and is a partnership between the English-speaking democracies. (It is only in recent years that nations like South Korea, Japan, and India are being considered for minor partnerships in this grouping.)
France, arguably, is upset that it has lost out to the Anglosphere – it has reason to be. It fancies itself as a Pacific power, through control over territories like New Caledonia. Britain is certainly trying to climb back on the coat-tails of its more powerful cousin across the Atlantic to return to the Pacific – it lost all pretence of being a truly international player when it gave up Diego Garcia to the US in 1966.
It’s not clear when AUKUS was thought up – all we know is that the deed was finalised on the margins of the G-7 summit in Cornwall in June. Masterminded by the US, it is the new game in town. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars over the last 20 years have clearly dented US power to go it alone, but AUKUS has demonstrated US ability to mobilise middle powers to mount a serious challenge to Beijing.
In fact, even as it declines, the US has shown that it can both throw cold water on France’s pretensions to be a global power and put Australia on notice about shedding its final hesitations about challenging China – remember that China has been Australia’s largest trading partner over the past decade, accounting for over 32 per cent of Australian exports, despite Australia echoing the US demand in 2020 to investigate the origins of the coronavirus.
Only 10 days ago, the Chinese lobbied the Australian Parliament to recommend its admission into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, citing the runaway success of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.
In fact, a decade ago, Australia had put the Quad “on ice,” according to Reuters, because of China’s objections to the Quad’s joint naval exercises.
Today, the Quad is back on track and the US has created a new security alliance. Australia’s turnaround is fair warning that the world is once again dividing itself up, this time with China as the key antagonist.
Quad and India
So, what is the Quad? Let’s first see what it is not. It is not, for example, a nuclear submarine-based alliance, like AUKUS. Officials say the Quad will deal with “non-military determinants” of global security – such as supply chain diversification, climate change, vaccines, and technology among others.
That in itself is impressive. To be part of a global conversation, for example, that seeks to reduce its exposure to China and build alternative supply chains, is an ambitious venture.
Except that the pandemic has been so cruel to India that India’s exposure to Chinese goods has gone up – not come down. The economy may have finally emerged from the demonetisation woods, but key links remain broken because of the pandemic’s fury.
Under the circumstances, India’s participation in the Quad is a hugely significant step – but let us not pretend that it catapults India into the centre of global realpolitik. It doesn’t. India certainly leads the developing world ably, but a yawning gulf of many light years separates it from the big boys. In that world, cutting a deal is par for the course – you win some, you lose some.
Which is why Blinken’s comments to the US Congress last week that the US is in talks with India for a staging post to undertake “over the horizon” strikes inside Afghanistan are interesting.
Was Blinken fudging the truth or did he mean what he said? Having partnered with Pakistan these past few years to deliver the Taliban in Kabul, is Blinken now teasing Pakistan with its sudden interest in India and Afghanistan? Is the US Secretary of State indicating that Biden and Modi could write a new chapter on Afghanistan? Watching this space just became more interesting.
Lastly, France’s anger at AUKUS also holds lessons for India: It is imperative to build your national strength to afford, like Paris, to throw a histrionic fit. The world will take India less seriously if it undercuts its democratic credentials within and refuses to engage with regional economic partnerships like RCEP abroad.
Also, France is likely to sooner than later make up with the US — NATO allies can’t afford to squabble so long and so publicly. Moreover, France knows that it would have done exactly the same if it was offered the opportunity to earn $60 billion so quickly.
That’s why “everyone is naked in the hamam” principle applies so readily to global politics.
As for India, it will welcome an AUKUS-Quad shoe in and will keep her relationship with France in fine fettle — more Rafale fighters are on their way, anyway.
PM Modi’s outing to Washington DC, the first time in a couple of years, is a good opportunity to feel the world’s pulse and the direction in which it is headed.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)