Timing is everything in international relations.
Just prior to the Quad (India, Australia, US and Japan) meeting on September 24, the UK, Australia and US announced a major defence deal that brings the three closer than ever before. This Quad will be the first in-person summit of the leaders of Australia, US, Japan and India. They will meet in the White House, with all of the US might and friendly diplomacy (and perhaps pressure) on display.
You can expect at the Quad that India and Japan will be under some increased pressure to boost their role in deterring China. Even though the four countries have tried hard to avoid the Quad being seen as some strategic grouping, that has been the unspoken intent and questions will be asked of India and Japan about their future role.
“Deterrence” is the new word for this region, and it is all about China.
The decision to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia is based on range, stealth and power. Such a submarine can spend a long time in areas like the South China Sea or Malacca Straits. It also has the speed to get away if detection risk grows. But the Quad meeting will know this new alliance is about much more than submarines.
For while the focus has been that the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) alliance is all about nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, that is just one part of the deal. The three have formed a military alliance that will cover the next 30 to 50 years. Australia will see many more UK and US navy vessels in our harbours and more of their fighter jets and troops on our soil.
As the two powers—UK and US—shift more of their naval forces to the Indo-Pacific region, they will be expecting India and Japan to also become hosts and active partners.
Is the Indo-Pacific region safer or less safe under this pact?
Xi Jinping made it very clear in his speech in July that China is becoming a “great power” and that being a great power means you can use that power in any way you deem fit—“engaging in a great struggle against others who seek to make their own decisions”.
The economic miracle of modern China is making it a “great power”—that is inevitable, and we all have to learn to live with it. But China under Xi has appeared to many as an aggressive regional power—as we see in the South China Sea, on the issue of Taiwan and in its use of trade as a weapon against Australia. This is seen in the region as intimidation. One of the outcomes of this has been the speed with which the AUKUS partnership was formed. It will be on the agenda for next week’s Quad discussions.
We have seen deterrence play a role in global peace for the last 75 years or more, though there have been “cold wars” and many local battles. But in history an extended period of global peace is rare, and deterrence has been the major contributor. That is the hope of the new AUKUS alliance—deterrence of China in the Indo-Pacific.
There is a view that China sees western democracies and economies as being in a state of almost terminal decline. That badly underestimates the resilience that democracies have, and the innovative capacities of the US economy. This China view should make the Indo-Pacific nations feel very uncomfortable. Such a misplaced view could lead to actions that everyone regrets. More for the Quad to think about.
The region needs to acknowledge that the China challenge is here for the long term—that China is entitled to be a great power in this world. Working with China from a position of strength should be the aim of countries like India, Japan and Australia. Peace, freedom, the capacity to live as free and open democracies is the only outcome that could make sense of all of this recent activity between the UK, the US and Australia.
I would hope to see Australia improve its diplomacy with China, understand the differences between us, aim for tolerant outcomes and accept that we do not need to be the best of friends in order to get on and keep everything peaceful and safe. Too idealistic? Perhaps, but India is one nation that has demonstrated how to get on with very diverse and competing nations, maintaining relations when others would shut the door.
India and Japan will be receiving the message that growing in power to deter China is a major step towards a peaceful and safer Indo-Pacific. And hopefully they will be helping the US and Australia to understand that diplomacy is not about “us” versus “them” but about finding a way, even when that is difficult.
Forget the detail of the AUKUS deal—just remember that “deterrence” of China is the new mantra among western democracies and will surely be a big talking point at next week’s Quad meeting.
The author is blogger at INTO INDIA and Chairman of the Genesis India Australia Horticulture Project. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.