The Undertone of AUKUS and QUAD in Reigning Supremacy over the Indo-Pacific Region
Commodore Kazi Emdadul Haq, BSP, ndu, psc (Retd)
The revitalization of Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) in 2017 began to relieve India’s Quad conundrum until the formation of AUKUS (Australia, the UK, and the USA). The announcement of AUKUS was a shockwave that reverberated from East to West over the Indo-Pacific Region. The AUKUS has created a new dimension in the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), and at the same time, it posed an existential challenge to the Quad that has further worsened after the Russian invasion of Ukraine as India took the side of Russia.
The Quad concept was first floated in 2007 by Japanese ex-prime minister Shinzo Abe, possibly out of China fear. During the first decade of the 21st century, the Quad members (Australia, Japan, India, and the USA) were mesmerized to make economic connectivity with China, as such, the Quad idea went into hibernation despite some progress.
After a decade, none but all Quad members turned into adversaries to China. When the USA started to realize that rising China posed a credible challenge to the USA’s global supremacy, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, the Quad idea again got started to reinvigorate in 2017. China remained at loggerheads with all the Quad countries which became more evident during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was too late to understand the Communist Party of China played the strategy so diplomatically that the Quad countries remained preoccupied to fight their respective old enemies, and at the same time, China, covertly, brought chasm among the Quad countries.
India remained obsessed with Pakistan’s terrorist threats, and the USA remained engaged with North Korea and Iran over the nuclear threat. Moreover, the West saw the rise of some despotic leaders in the Middle East as their main threat which led AIPAC ( America Israel Public Affairs Committee) to persuade the USA and its allies to attack Iraq in an unjust war in 2003. Australia participated in Malabar Naval Exercise in 2007, and after that, India didn’t invite Australia to participate in the exercise until 2020, when Australia was again invited as China became an adversary to all Quad members. Boon and bane, all these cumulated activities went in favour of China to rise clandestinely.
The USA was late to appreciate who the real foe was. Ex-President Donald Trump realized that China began to pose a credible challenge to US’s supremacy both in terms of economy and military. China claimed almost all of the South China Sea’s (SCS) water by drawing a 9-dash line that pushed almost all littoral countries of SCS adversary to China. US’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) campaign was seriously threatened as the SCS became a hot and debated zone.
Under this threat scenario, Quad members started to discuss the value of Quad unity. As a result, when Joe Biden came to power, he called in the first-ever Quad leaders’ level virtual summit in March 2021 that drew the world’s attention to Quad. Regrettably, the meeting outcome couldn’t give a clear direction of Quad’s purpose. Quad members and strategic thinkers have shown mixed reactions to the success of Quad. India was very happy to see the revitalization of Quad as it became a moral support for India to counter China. Indian think tanks and media began to discuss the importance of India’s role as a key security provider in the Indian Ocean which coalesced into the fulfilment of the same purpose of IPS.
However, India’s continued relation with Russia and buying S-400 missile system, USD 5 billion deal, from Russia despite the US’s warning under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), and also rise of extremism disregarding the human rights within India, the USA, possibly, remained skeptical over the consensus action of Quad. India imports 86% of its military equipment from Russia – Indian flagship aircraft carrier is of Russian origin, nine diesel-electric submarines are Russian, over 98% of the Indian army’s main battle tanks are Russian, 72% of fighters are Russian, 95% surface-to-air-missile is Russian origin, and many more. In 2019, India signed a US$ 3 billion contract to lease a Russian Akula-1 class nuclear-powered attack submarine which will arrive in India by 2025. India is yet to get such kind of cooperation from the USA or the West.
In fact in October 2019, Indian External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, in a speech at Atlantic Council, gave umbrage to the West(that includes the USA) for putting India into a “Goldilocks” policy and that notable Jaishankar’s dogma placed India into the Eastern bloc. Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has made it more clear that India needs Russian help to defend its borders. China knew India’s Quad dilemma well and planned a strategy accordingly to counter Quad.
Amidst these heightened uncertainties and mistrust, on 15 September 2021, the USA announced a new alliance called AUKUS. Under the AUKUS deal, President Joe Biden has said, both the USA and UK will share nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia. The USA aimed to create credible deterrence that became evident as China slammed AUKUS as “highly irresponsible” and said it could trigger a nuclear arms race. It also aroused huge discussion among the maritime strategists where India appeared forlorn and desolate; the partnership may have disgruntled New Delhi, said a former Indian naval chief.
The mistrust between India and the USA possibly grew further after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. India has abstained on all occasions on procedural votes and draft resolutions in the UN Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council. The EU is making a gas deal with the USA to overcome the fuel crisis, on contrary India is making an agreement with Russia on Rupee-Ruble trade and buying Russian cheap oil where the USA and EU have imposed sanctions on Russia. The USA is the biggest export (total trade in 2021 is US$112.6 billion) market of India, and by favouring the bellicose Russian leader, India is doubling down on its economy as well as the tenacity of Quad.
US president Joe Biden participates is a virtual press conference with British prime minister Boris Johnson
and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison to announces the AUKUS alliance. AFP
While India’s action is well supported by Indian media and think tanks, but Indian diplomacy started to stumble in the West which had spawned huge discourse in the West. Joe Biden said that India was being “somewhat shaky”, and when asked during a press brief, US’s press secretary said Delhi should know that history wouldn’t be kind to it for undermining efforts to isolate Moscow with sanctions. The US ambassador to the UN has said abstaining from voting is not neutrality.
Presently, the biggest loser of the AUKUS agreement appears to be France as it lost a US$90 billion submarine deal with Australia that angered France so much that France excluded Australia from close “strategic allies” as the EU planned a new Indo-Pacific Strategy. France maintains over 7000 forces and 1.6 million French citizens in the “Island States” of the Indo-Pacific region. In the backdrop of this setback, France is pursuing to supply nuclear-powered fast attack submarine (SSN) to India under the Indian Navy’s “Project 75 Alpha”.
Naval nuclear technology is considered highly sensitive and thus kept confidential from the beginning of the “cold war” era. The submarine is considered a hidden threat and a crucial strategic asset. France has long been contributing to building Indian naval submarines (Project 75) besides Russia. Why Australia has cancelled the submarine deal with France has become a puzzling question to ask about. It might have far-fetched strategic implications that would take time to unfold. However, it can be foreseen that it would have been easy for India to get the Australian submarine information and know-how had France would supply submarines to Australia. Now with better US technology, it would be hard for India to cope with the US-supplied nuclear-powered submarine operating in the Indian Ocean. The situation became more perplexed when Indian Project-75I got delayed due to not getting Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) for building powerful submarines.
The AUKUS members are all-weather-tested friends being the same family of Anglo-Saxon like Five-Eyes countries of intelligence alliance. The AUKUS countries will now have more confidence in sharing hi-tech equipment which the USA would not share with India. Till now the USA has shared nuclear submarine propulsion technology with the UK only. The USA also does not want to share nuclear propulsion technology with India as clearly evident from Indian retired naval Chiefs and admirals. Submarines (unconfirmed report says at least eight) will likely be constructed in Australia in close cooperation with the USA and UK targeting to finish by 2040s. Meanwhile, Australia might get leased submarines either from the USA or UK, but details are still unclear.
Even though India’s foreign policy is “non-alignment”, India always remained aligned with the then Soviet Union that continued with present Russia. India also abstained from the UN vote against the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979. A sovereign country has all the rights to choose its side but remaining within Russian influence, and at the same time trying to be a trusted ally of Quad would possibly be a futile effort of India.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States, February 2022 document (Indo-Pacific Action Plan – Part III) clearly puts greater emphasis on the AUKUS partnership to deal with military activities – Pacific deterrence initiative and maritime security initiative, including artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea capabilities. Whereas Quad is to deal with non-traditional security issues like global health security, emerging technology, maritime domain awareness, infrastructure, climate responses, etc. It’s a great policy shift in the USA.
In the present scenario, climate change response is getting preference globally including in the USA, as such, it is expected that Quad would be dealing with it seriously in the future days. In the latest leaders’ level Quad summit in Japan on 24 May 2022, climate change response was a dominant issue that had been mentioned by all three leaders in their welcoming speech except the PM of India. Because, in COP26, India’s lack of commitment to reducing carbon emissions was a disappointment for the participants. Quad’s initiative on climate is again less likely to progress without India’s cooperation.
USA’s main interest is to ensure the Indo-Pacific security and be free and open to all. AUKUS is being designed (task groups to determine details of AUKUS partnership until March 2023) to fulfill the stated interests. Objectives of Quad are also explained in the “Indo-Pacific Strategy February 2022 document” which has been well reflected in “Quad Joint Leaders’ Statement, May 24, 2022”. To provide more emphasis on the Indo-Pacific economy, the USA also launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) with 12 Indo-Pacific countries on the previous day of the Quad summit in Tokyo. India is included in the IPEF. Fact remains that India’s geostrategic location has minted India as a key partner in the Indian Ocean for which the USA kept on pursuing India’s sway towards the USA through various diplomatic efforts. However, for making an agile Quad, the above statistics suggest that India may require rebalancing its strategy.
The USA’s grand strategy is to control and maintain its supremacy over the entire region of Indo-Pacific which has been challenged by rising China. China’s continued assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific mainly in the South China Sea would likely compel the USA to act as a bellwether of AUKUS at the same time maintaining the ties with allied littoral countries of the Indo-Pacific region. India is likely to discern the perplexing development of AUKUS from the sideline where the Quad would be debilitating as a consequential upshot of AUKUS. By signing the AUKUS partnership, the USA has undoubtedly created a new power balance in the Indo-Pacific region where Australia gets an upper edge over India.
Commodore Kazi Emdadul Haq, BSP, ndu, psc (Retd). Founding Member, BIMRAD.