The latest trilateral arrangement in the Indo-Pacific – the Australia-United Kingdom-United States or AUKUS – is good news for both the Indo-Pacific and India. The Joe Biden administration, in quite a dramatic fashion, has put to rest any lingering questions about the United States’ willingness to play a global role. These questions were always somewhat unwarranted because there was little doubt that Washington would respond to the challenge posed by China in the Indo-Pacific. Despite many ideological differences, Biden had already doubled down on some key aspects of the Donald Trump administration’s foreign policy on competing with China.
Nevertheless, Biden’s badly mismanaged troops withdrawal from Afghanistan also raised concerns about the US’ staying power and dependability. The AUKUS initiative, coming barely two weeks after the withdrawal, is further testament to the US’ commitment to its global role. Indeed, in retrospect, the withdrawal itself appears to be a planned refocus, disengaging from a fruitless fight that was sapping US strength so that it could redirect American attention to the much more important task of countering China.
US partnership is essential for India
For India, this refocus should be welcome because US power is better served in dealing with China than with Pakistan. India has more than adequate military capacity, assuming focus and preparation, to deal with any Pakistani mischief. India hardly needs US assistance for this. Indeed, as long as the US remained in Afghanistan, its need for access via Pakistan made it beholden to Rawalpindi, constraining Indian options. With the US no longer needing Pakistan in the critical manner it did before – and with considerable domestic US anger at Rawalpindi’s role in Afghanistan – there is no reason why India should not plan much more extensive punishment for any Pakistani provocation.
This is hardly the case when it comes to China, a country with an economy more than fifty times as large as Pakistan’s. Even considering that the size of the economy doesn’t translate perfectly into military power, it is foolish to consider these two threats as comparable, or worse, Pakistan as a bigger threat.
Moreover, China’s power is multidimensional in a way that Pakistan’s is not. China is not only a permanent member of the UN Security Council, but it is also an economic behemoth that is increasingly using its economic and trade power to pressure others. India may possibly be able to hold its own in a military confrontation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), at least for now, but there is little hope that India can match China’s power in these other dimensions. This makes partners essential for India.
AUKUS expands the Quad tent
But not all partners are the same: despite India’s promiscuousness in strategic partnerships, what matters is not how many partners India has but how strong they are and whether they share the same security interests as India. Alliances and strategic partnerships are meant to pool strength, and how much power the partners can bring together is more important than how many partners there are. This is the reason why the US, despite being the preeminent economic and military power, still considers alliances necessary as part of its strategy. Importantly, this is also a source of China’s weakness: China appears much less willing to build security alliances, despite being relatively weaker than the US. There’s lesson here that New Delhi can learn, though I won’t be holding my breath.
Another reason the new AUKUS trilateral is beneficial to India, even if indirectly, is that its central purpose is to add one more lever in building a balance against China’s power. India itself has, correctly, formed several trilaterals in partnership with one or the other members of the Quad, to draw in non-Quad members, expanding the Quad tent. The AUKUS trilateral does the same, bringing in the UK. The more countries are involved in countering China’s pursuit of hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, the better for all.
More narrowly, Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines from its British and American partners, which will give the Australian navy a much heftier capability to counter China’s naval expansion. China has embarked on an aircraft carrier programme that will give it multiple large carriers, almost as large as current US supercarriers, by the end of the decade. It is doubtful that Australia’s nuclear submarines would be ready that quickly, but in the longer run, nuclear-powered attack submarines will be a better bet to counter China’s coming carrier battlegroups than the conventional Barracuda-class submarines that Australia was planning to buy from France. In any case, even the French submarines would have entered service in Australia only by the mid-2030s, which means that there is unlikely to be a big-time delay in shifting to US-UK nuclear submarines.
There is little doubt that France is miffed about the manner in which the announcement came about, both because of what it meant for France as America’s partner and the considerable financial implications of losing the lucrative contract for Australian submarines. It is unclear why the US and Australia decided not to give the French leadership advance notice of their plans. Though it doesn’t justify the manner in which this was done, it should also be noted that France, historically, has had a less than smooth relationship with the US, whether it was walking out of NATO-integrated military command in 1966 (which it rejoined in 2009), or more recently, opposing the US effort to get UN Security Council support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But France remains an important partner for all Quad members because it recognises the importance of a balanced, non-hegemonic Indo-Pacific, especially considering that France has overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific.
Finally, the fundamental reason for forming the AUKUS trilateral is China’s continued aggressive behaviour. It is also worth noting that though the Quad is not a military alliance now, it could very well turn into one if China’s behaviour continues towards its aggressive path.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)