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Close on the heels of a humiliating exit from Afghanistan that has raised questions over America's commitment towards its allies, the Joe Biden administration on Wednesday announced the formation of a "historic" trilateral security partnership with the UK and Australia that will be rather awkwardly known as 'AUKUS'.
In a joint televised appearance and later through a joint statement, Biden, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison announced that in order to "deepen diplomatic, security, and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, we are announcing the creation of an enhanced trilateral security partnership called AUKUS", that, the leaders claimed, "will strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests" through fostering "deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains."
A key feature of this Indo-Pacific grouping is that as part of the defence agreement, the US and the UK will share nuclear submarine technology with Australia and help Royal Australian Navy possess a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines " making Australia the member of an exclusive club of only six world powers (the US, UK, France, China, India and Russia). The move will vastly enhance Australia's capabilities as the net security provider in the Indo-Pacific and its ability to counter China. This is also expected to have a bearing on US security commitment towards Taiwan in the event of China resorting to force.
Though Joe Biden, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson " and the officials behind the chalking of this deal " were at pains to point out that this alliance was "not directed towards any country" " no one is buying that excuse.
It is obvious that China's military aggressiveness, bullying of the nations in Indo-Pacific and virtual taking over of the maritime space in South China Sea necessitated a response, and the alliance " that is being called "the most significant security arrangement between the three nations since World War Two" " is aimed at mitigating the challenges arising out of China's force posture including rapid naval and air force expansion and expansive territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific.
The AUKUS agreement will also cover the domains of artificial intelligence, cyber, undersea and quantum technologies but it is the nuclear naval reactor bit that has understandably attracted the most attention. Unlike conventional, diesel-powered submarines, nuclear-powered subs have better endurance, are faster, stealthier, can cover greater distances and remain submerged for months.
As a Nikkei Asia report points out, "in a potential conflict with China, many US military planners believe that only a submarine could operate in the Taiwan Strait " China's 2,000 short-to medium-range missiles could sink every surface ship that entered the waters." China's deterrence capability vis-a-vis surface vessels therefore make nuclear-powered subs an essential weapon in armory.
Additionally, Australia announced that it "will rapidly acquire long-range strike capabilities to enhance the ADF's ability to deliver strike effects across our air, land and maritime domains" and as part of the deal, will acquire US long-range Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, "to be fielded on our Hobart class destroyers, enabling our maritime assets to strike land targets at greater distances, with better precision."
There are two broad reasons why this is a big deal.
One, the move to acquire nuclear-powered subs " that are fueled by weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium " militates against Australia's record as a leader in nuclear non-proliferation movement. And Morrison has been at pains to point out that "Australia has no plans to acquire nuclear weapons and this proposal will remain consistent with Australia's longstanding commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. All three nations are deeply committed to upholding leadership on global non-proliferation."
Analysts, however, believe that such non-proliferation isn't cast in stone. Financial Times quoted Kori Schake of American Enterprise Institute think-tank as saying that the deal is "a reminder to China that Australia has the technological capabilities and alliance relationships that they could become a nuclear power if the threat China poses becomes so severe."
The move also meant that Australia has dumped the multi-billion dollar with France for delivery of 12 conventional, attack-class submarines to be built by French company DCNS, angering France, that has called a "betrayal" and a "stab in the back".
Morrison's excuse is that US nuclear submarine technology wasn't an option open to Australia when the $43 billion deal was struck in 2016, and conventional subs won't meet Australia's security needs in the changed environment.
The second reason behind the deal raising eyebrows is that the US is very restrictive about nuclear naval reactor technology which Washington categorises as "sensitive", and up until now had shared the knowhow only with Britain, and that too in 1958. Reactors powered with highly enriched uranium are considered a security risk and tantamount to handing over nuclear capability.
The contradiction in US posture and action has been explained as an "exception", that, according to a report in New York Times, won't be made for "other major allies" including South Korea. The report quotes a senior Biden administration official "deeply involved in the negotiations over the deal" as saying that the United States had not made a deal like this in decades and that, "after today, it's not likely we will do it again."
For the US, the deal is meant as an assurance to its allies and partners that Washington remains invested in its relationships and is ready to extend commitments. The move indicates that the US is ready for a sustained pledges in the Indo-Pacific and doesn't flinch way from pushing back against China through enhanced diplomatic and security partnerships.
In his speech, Biden said "this is about investing in our greatest source of strength " our alliances " and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow. It's about connecting America's existing allies and partners in new ways and amplifying our ability to collaborate, recognizing that there is no regional divide separating the interests of our Atlantic and Pacific partners."
The move, however, also limits Australia's maneuverability when it comes to China, reduces its space for hedging, and raises expectations that Canberra will take an active part should the need arise for a military confrontation between the US and China.
Will the importance of Quad be diminished?
The timing of the announcement, that came just a week ahead of a meeting of Quad leaders in Washington DC hosted by US president Biden, has raised questions in India whether AUKUS will sideline Quad and reduce the salience of the Indo-Pacific grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the US.
This fear is unfounded. The Quad was never a military alliance, and therefore the development of a trilateral specifically drawn on security has no bearing on its salience. The Quad has a much broader agenda and the formation of a security partnership that complements the Quad should be welcome news for India.
As India's external affairs minister S Jaishankar said at the recent JG Crawford Oration organised by the Australian National University, "the working of the Quad takes into account the consequences of globalization, requirements of the global commons and the expression of converging interests. The Malabar exercise is cited most often as its example. But Quad's expanding agenda affirms a declared intention to promote greater prosperity and ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific-so, it should not be seen narrowly."
It is useful to remember, as Brookings Institution scholar Tanvi Madan says, the Quad is not an Asian Nato or even a mini-Nato. A security alliance is neither on offer, nor is India interested in joining one. The grouping is a flexible multilateral partnership that, among other things, seeks to ensure rules-based order in the maritime space of Indo-Pacific and shape China's behaviour through a balancing strategy.
As multipolarity becomes the new global order, there will be a number of issue-based trilaterals, plurilaterals and multilaterals allowing members the space to abstain or join. The Quad and AUKUS may coexist, and even supplement each other with both and other such groupings serving specific goals within the larger architecture of Indo-Pacific. Taken together, the web of alliances and partnerships presents a formidable challenge to the bully in the neighbourhood, China.