The growing alliance against China has had some overlaps. The Quad, as it’s come to be called, that includes the US, Australia, Japan and India, likely to be strengthened at an in-person meeting of its leaders this week. A looser British focus on the Indo-Pacific that brings closer ties with India, even if not aimed openly at China. And finally the pact between the US, Britain and Australia.
The pact, AUKUS, as it’s been named, does not call out China either, but there is no doubt who this security pact is against. This is significantly a renewal of a military pact between the two old World War allies.
Australia is not any more a polite third; it will enter the world of nuclear-powered submarines, if not weapons – yet – with a fleet of submarines to be built in Adelaide with US technology. Australia is clearly setting itself up now as a frontline military force against China in the Pacific region.
The pact leaves Japan and India out of the military equation. More significantly it brings a narrow new military focus away from the larger North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The AUKUS alliance is creating rifts within NATO already. France has lost out on a proposed deal to build 12 submarines for Australia. That contract was worth 36.5 billion dollars. France recalled its ambassadors from these old allies “for consultations”, the sort of arsenal kept for serious diplomatic wars.
Former French ambassador to the US Gerard Araud tweeted: “The world is a jungle. France has just been reminded of this bitter truth by the way the US and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia.”
The new military alliance brings together three fundamentally English-speaking nations that have a shared military past and broadly aligned political positions. It leaves out Canada and New Zealand with which the AUKUS three share their Five Eyes intelligence-sharing.
AUKUS is by far the sharpest new military alliance to have been set up in recent times. Little surprise that China has described it as “extremely irresponsible”. A spokesperson said the pact “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race.”
That response suggests worry; this is the first convincing military response led by the US to China’s muscle-flexing in the Indo-Pacific.
Where that places India
AUKUS leaders have made it clear what this alliance stands specifically to protect – and that does not include India. India’s issues with China will be for India to face.
UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC that China was “embarking on one of the biggest military spends in history”. He said: “It is growing its navy and air force at a huge rate. Our partners in those regions want to be able to stand their own ground.” The Himalayan border between India and China is an area over which the alliance may take a common political position, but unlikely to offer military support to India over.
Some peripheral commonalities could work to India’s advantage. It will be to the advantage also to other countries in the region including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand that share common concerns over China’s aggressive expansionism in recent years.
The broader alliance appears ideological; the countries partnering the US against China in different ways and to varying degrees are all democracies. The Chinese embassy in Washington said the AUKUS governments should “should shake off their Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice”.
But while peripherally and potentially advantageous to India, the new alliance does make the Quad appear a poor and rather impotent cousin. The Quad meeting will now focus on the positioning of India and Japan within that group, and what potential alliance including them could still end up with some teeth.
But the Quad is now certain to fall far short of the ‘Asian NATO’ that some optimists within Asia had begun to see it as. The optimists on the other side see the Quad as complementing AUKUS in a non-military way. But this does appear at the moment to be optimism of the soundbite sort.
The new grouping has brought divisions not just within NATO but in the Pacific region as well, and at Australia’s doorstep. New Zealand says it was never invited to join the new alliance. And that, in line with established principles, it will keep Australian nuclear-powered submarines out of its waters.