Given India’s geographical positioning, and its strong ties with the countries involved, be it bilaterally or ‘minilaterally’, any developments in the region will have serious military implications for New Delhi
President Joe Biden and the leaders of Australia and the UK recently announced that Australia would acquire nuclear-powered attack submarines from the US to modernise its fleet. This 18-month-old nuclear alliance termed AUKUS — Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — was celebrated by Biden in San Diego alongside Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
he AUKUS initiative comes amid growing concern about China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. Much to everyone’s concerns, China has, over the years, expanded its presence in the region — be it economically, politically, diplomatically or militarily. Furthermore, China’s rise has intensified the Sino-American rivalry and it is becoming increasingly clear that the Indo-Pacific is likely to remain the prime spot for great power contestation. Naturally, it has pushed countries like Australia, India, Japan to form alliances and indulge in, what in international relations discourse is called, balancing.
The announcement and commencement of the AUKUS agreement, as expected, has drawn sharp criticism from Beijing. The agreement, according to Spokesperson Wang Wenbin, is the result of a “typical Cold War mentality which will only motivate an arms race, damage the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, and harm regional stability and peace.”
China’s Foreign Ministry has cautioned the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom against “travelling further down the wrong and dangerous path for their own geopolitical self-interest”.
While President Biden has emphasised that the submarines are “nuclear powered, not nuclear armed”, and downplayed the strategic significance of the agreement on the regional security architecture in an effort to de-escalate the rising tensions with Beijing, it cannot be denied that this development has brought forth and cemented the emerging China challenge. Naturally, such a tacit admission affects how all the nations in the region will carry forth with their foreign policies going forward.
What is AUKUS?
AUKUS, an acronym for Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, is touted to be the most significant trilateral military technology agreement since the Cold War. According to the agreement, which was made public in September 2021, the US and the UK will assist Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.
According to this deal, the UK will provide an upgraded version of the Astute submarine, SSN-AUKUS, while Australia would purchase at least three Virginia-class attack submarines from the US. The US will also intensify its port visits to Australia as part of the arrangement to provide the country familiarity and additional exposure to nuclear-powered technologies.
This covertly negotiated agreement caused the Australian government to renege on a $66 billion contract for a fleet of conventional submarines with France and triggered a diplomatic dispute within the western world for months.
The AUKUS deal also calls for cooperation in the development of hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, and other cutting-edge technology in addition to submarines. The alliance gives Australia access to nuclear-powered submarines, which are more capable and stealthier than ships with conventional propulsion. This is significant because it serves as a counterbalance to China’s military build-up in the Indo-Pacific region.
Australia’s Albanese, while thanking the US, said the agreement represents the “biggest single investment in Australia’s defense capability” in all of their history and that it is also the “first time in 65 years that the US has shared its nuclear propulsion technology”.
UK’s Sunak also called AUKUS “the most significant multilateral defence partnership in generations” and said that Britain also will share its 60 years of experience running its own submarine fleet with Australian engineers so they can “build their own fleet”.
Beijing has argued that the AUKUS deal violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It contends that the transfer of nuclear weapons materials from a nuclear-weapon state to a non-nuclear-weapon state is a “blatant” violation of the spirit of the pact.
While China was only referenced briefly, analysts believe that the new agreement is a component of a continuing effort by the three countries to respond to Beijing’s expanding military strength and assertive presence in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS would allow US and UK SSNs to patrol the western coast of Australia, thereby restraining the PLA Navy and its expansive plans in Pacific Island Countries.
The growing China challenge
In an apparent reference to China, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles stated that AUKUS was necessary to counter the “biggest conventional military build-up in the region” since World War II. AUKUS is one of numerous US-led initiatives in the region that can be interpreted as an attempt to challenge or constrain Beijing. China has consistently advocated against formation of “regional blocs”, which it labels a remnant of “Cold War mentality”.
Beijing has also been alarmed by the recent agreement between Washington and the Philippines that grants American forces greater access to Filipino bases which threaten Chinese influence over the region.
QUAD is another well-known regional organisation that is frequently, albeit unofficially, described as an anti-China grouping. China has aggressively criticised the alliance and even labelled it “Asian NATO”. Much to China’s chagrin, the group has, over the years, established itself as an alternative to China.
While these are only a few examples of nations forging issue-based alliances with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific, they are sufficient to cement the emerging China threat. A US non-profit organisation called Nuclear Threat Initiative claims that China’s PLAN already has six nuclear-powered submarines that are capable of firing torpedoes and cruise missiles. In addition to this, the People’s Liberation Army has begun a journey towards the rapid modernisation of its forces. China has opted for rapid expansion of its warheads even on the nuclear front.
China’s economic influence, its position as a crucial link in the global supply chain, and its status as the most significant trading partner for nations worldwide all speak volumes about China’s expansion and the ensuing rise in regional insecurity.
In recent times, multiple countries have come up with their Indo-Pacific countries and have regarded China as a threat. These nations have urged bolstering of positions in response to “coercion and aggression” from China. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, too, did not hold back and stated unequivocally that a more assertive China poses a “systemic challenge” to the global order, calling China’s recent behaviours concerning.
While the AUKUS alliance does not have a direct, negative bearing on India, it does affect New Delhi nonetheless. Given India’s geographical positioning, and its strong ties with the countries involved, be it bilaterally or ‘minilaterally’, any developments in the region will have serious military implications for New Delhi.
Another way to look at it is that India now has like-minded countries with strong warships trying to deter China in the Indo-Pacific. And it is inevitable that they recognise India’s centrality in the maintenance of a “rules-based order” in this endeavour.
Whether AUKUS is successful in re-shaping the security architecture of the region in the coming years or not is unknown, but the alliance is unquestionably a watershed moment in reinforcing the Chinese threat.