In a surprise, virtual statement on September 15, the heads of government of Australia, the UK and US announced the formation of a trilateral security pact, to be known by the acronym, AUKUS. Without naming China, US President Joe Biden announced, in a press conference, that “in order to deal with rapidly evolving threats,” the US and Britain would share, with Australia, intelligence and advanced technologies in areas like artificial intelligence, cyber-warfare, quantum computing and nuclear submarine construction.
The surprise at the formation of AUKUS is for a number of reasons. Firstly, the three nations are already allied to each other, in more ways than one — the US and UK are NATO allies, and Australia, New Zealand and the US are linked by the ANZUS pact. All three are also members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance. Secondly, this announcement, coming just days before the first in-person summit meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), places a question mark over the continuing relevance of this forum and its long-overdue actualisation. Finally, the inclusion of a much-diminished, post-Brexit UK in such a long-range alliance is bound to raise a few eyebrows.
China has made no secret of its neurosis about the Quad as well as the naval exercise, “Malabar,” both of which, now, have a common membership, comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan. Beijing’s apprehensions arise from the suspicion that this concatenation could be a precursor to “containment” – the Cold War strategy which eventually brought the USSR to its knees.
While frequently heaping scorn on their attempts at synergy and coordination, China loses no opportunity to send intimidatory messages to the Quad nations. This has led to palpable trepidation amongst members of this grouping, who have remained over-cautious in their utterances and tended to “tip-toe” around the “dragon” in their midst. The Quad has neither created a charter nor invested itself with any substance; fearing that it would be dubbed an “Asian NATO.” China, on its part, has dismissed the Quad as a “headline-grabbing idea which will dissipate like sea-foam”.
So far, China has had its way in the geopolitical arena without hindrance from any quarter. In the South China Sea, having staked outrageous territorial claims, and contemptuously dismissed the adverse verdict of the UN Court of Arbitration, China has proceeded to create artificial islands, and to convert them into fortified air bases. Regular “freedom of navigation operations” by the US and allied navies have neither deterred, nor daunted China.
Even more belligerent has been China’s conduct along the Sino-Indian border, where it has used massive military deployments to stake claims to large tracts of Indian territory, leading to a sanguinary conflict in mid-June 2020. India, having counter-mobilised, at considerable economic cost, has stood its ground. Given our limited options, this dangerous confrontation is likely to continue.
Against this backdrop, it is possible that creation of the AUKUS could well be an attempt to send a stronger message to China. However, China’s description of this alliance as an “exclusionary bloc,” should be food for thought for two members of the Quad/Malabar forums — India and Japan — who have been excluded from the new grouping.
While uncharitable comments about “Anglo-Saxon solidarity” must be ignored, there may be substance in the belief that the “Anglosphere nations” — which share common cultural and historical ties to the UK —do inspire more confidence in each other. Whether the Quad and AUKUS will reinforce each other, or remain mutually exclusive, will, no doubt, become clear in the forthcoming Quad summit.
An issue that should give cause for reflection in New Delhi, arises from Biden’s promise to transfer advanced technology, including submarine nuclear-propulsion to Australia. It brings into stark relief India’s failure to acquire any significant high technology from the US, in spite of bilateral ties, which have steadily grown in warmth and closeness over the past decade and a half.
Some major milestones in the Indo-US security relationship have been: Signing of the pathbreaking Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, in 2008; launching of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative in 2012; accord of the status of “Major Defence Partner” by the US Congress in 2016; grant of Tier 1 status to India, enabling export of high-technology items; and institution of “2+2 talks” in 2018. Signing of the fourth and last of the key “foundational agreements” in 2020, was supposed to have eliminated the final impediment to closer defence cooperation.
“Our strategic partnership with India, a fellow democracy…is reaching new heights,” says a 2019 US State Department document. While the warming of the Indo-US relationship brings comfort to Indians, we must beware of hyperbole, obscuring reality, in the bilateral discourse. American offers of help “to make India a great power” and overzealous declarations (at the apex level in November 2017) that that “two of the world’s great democracies should also have the world’s two greatest militaries,” must be taken with a generous pinch of salt.
China, it is said, owes its pole position to the advanced technology it was given, or it purloined from the US over a 30-year period. All that India has to show for its “strategic partnership,” is approximately $22 billion worth of military hardware purchased from US companies — a distinctly retrograde step when we seek atmanirbharta and freedom from external reliance. We need all the technologies being offered to Australia, in addition to “know-how” and “know-why” of much else, including stealth fighters, jet engines, advanced radars and, of course, nuclear propulsion for submarines as well as aircraft-carriers.
For India to attain its full potential, it will need insurance against hegemony, and a breathing space to restore its economy to its earlier buoyant trajectory. This respite will enable it to catch up with technology and boost its military muscle. While preparing to fight its own battles, India will need to seek external balancing. If realpolitik so demands, it must break old shibboleths and strike new partnerships — wherever there is convergence of interests
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 21, 2021 under the title ‘Time for realpolitik’. The writer is a retired chief of naval staff