AUKUS, the security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced on September 16, is a landmark coalition for many reasons. For one, in the aftermath of the Afghan rout, it is a powerful signal from the US that it is still in the game as the most important world power, that it is not withdrawing into a domestic shell, and that the traditional Anglo-Saxon alliance that has fought several wars on the same side for over a hundred years, is in robust health. AUKUS joins the ANZUS and Five Eyes, two other security alliances in the Indo-Pacific. Two, with the agreement for the transfer of nuclear-powered submarines (different from nuclear-armed submarines) to Australia, this alliance, quite unlike the Quad, is a clearly stated security/military alliance in the Indo-Pacific. Three, like the Quad, AUKUS is aimed at protecting the partners’ strategic interests in a region that spans two oceans and 38 countries, where China’s ambitions and assertiveness are challenging the existing status quo. Four, it marks a new low in Australia-China relations, and the ripples of this will be felt across the region. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner with a two-way trade of nearly US $200 billion, the largest buyer of its iron ore, natural gas and coal. And five, the US decision to transfer closely held military nuclear capability to Australia is not just expanding nuclear co-operation for strategic objectives, it is also a message to China that Washington could one day do the same for other countries in the region. Beijing is more rattled by AUKUS than by Quad.
For India, Australia’s willingness to take on the role of the US/West’s sword arm in the region — an American military base on Australian soil to maintain and service the submarines is now inevitable — is a welcome development as this is a move to contain China. As the only country in the Quad with a long, and recently turned hot land border with China, India now has a little less to worry about on the maritime front with AUKUS in play. It also buys Delhi more time to beef up the country’s own naval capabilities.
France has rightly felt let down by Australia, at the altar, as it were, of signing a submarine deal. The deal was important for France’s economy and its own considerable interests in the Indo-Pacific. Its foreign minister has described AUKUS as a stab in the back. But France can take consolation that the objectives of AUKUS are no different from its own. India, which has a supportive friend in France and a partner in Australia, is certain to avoid taking sides in this tiff. That is the best course.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 18, 2021 under the title ‘New horizons’.