Sunday, July 14, 2024

AUKUS & QUAD

Admiral Sunil Lanba (r.)

The steady rise of China has become a concerning foreign policy challenge in the Indo Pacific today. China’s rapid military development is threatening neighbouring countries and has led to overall increase in military expenditure and building of military capabilities. China has started to threaten the USA, underpinning the Asia security framework set up post World War II. China’s global economic reach and clout has enabled her to buy up strategic assets around the world. Its statecraft under the leadership of President Xi Jinping has grown more aggressive over the past decade, as her economic clout has grown. 

The great-power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific today is a fundamental struggle between a rules-based order versus a hierarchy-based international order. The United States, India, Japan, Australia and many other countries are now endeavouring to uphold the rule based order, while China is inclined to a hierarchical order based on its supreme position in bilateral as well as multilateral settings. The China challenge to the prevailing geopolitical order in East Asia is increasingly growing and being militarised. There is now a growing global push back with a number of multilateral organisations like QUAD playing a more active role.

The inaugural first-ever in-person QUAD meeting of the four heads of the QUAD countries was held on 24 Sept 21 in the White House. Just days before the summit, the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) alliance or pact was announced. Australia, USA and the UK announced a new trilateral programme that is perhaps one of the most significant security partnerships of this decade in the Indo Pacific. It will let Australia build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time, using technology provided by the USA and UK. 

The AUKUS pact, also covers AI and other technologies, and is Australia’s biggest defence partnership in decades. Though not spelt out explicitly, the partnership seeks to check on a growing China that has been asserting its military muscle, from the South China Sea to the border with India. Numerically the largest Navy in the world, the rapidly expanding Chinese Navy has seen the fastest military build-up since World War II by any nation, which is backed by China’s growing defence budget based on a strong economy.

The tri-pact of members constitute three of the Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Council (FIORC) and two of the Quad members. However there are questions raised about the diminishing importance of Quad because of the creation of AUKUS. On the contrary, the AUKUS, being a one of agreement, enables USA and UK to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia, helping them to possess a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. 

The AUKUS grants Australia the rights to being a member of an exclusive club of only six nations, the US, UK, France, China, India, and Russia which operate nuclear powered submarines. The QUAD and AUKUS complement each other. The Quad, is not a military pact, but a robust partnership of democratic nations that espouse and believe in upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific. AUKUS on the other hand is a military alliance between formal alliance partners.  India and Japan could never be part of AUKUS, given India’s aversion to military security pacts and Japan’s own aversion to nuclear technology.

Nuclear submarines would offer Australia a range of operational advantages, mainly that they can be deployed without surfacing for a much longer period than diesel submarines. The limits on nuclear submarines’ submerged operations are based only on how much supplies they can carry and how long the crew remain at sea. On the other hand, they are much more expensive to develop and build and they need specialist workforces to build, operate, and support them. 

The nuclear submarines will give the Australian Navy advantages of being able to deploy a submarine closer to China as against the conventional submarines. Nuclear propulsion gives submarines effectively unlimited range and the ability to operate underwater without ever surfacing thus providing significant tactical and strategic advantages.

The SSNs will provide greater range, flexibility, deploy for longer durations and will therefore operate  in the larger Indo Pacific. The eight boats once built would add to the overall number of submarines that the US and Australia would have in the Indo Pacific theatre in the future. It will complicate the underwater operational dimension for the PLA Navy where it is the weakest in maritime capability.

The AUKUS deal has received both implicit and explicit support by the leaders of the Quad. The strategic gains of such a pact and in relation to China are not insignificant. Even though the submarines exist only on paper for now, the USA has sent a strong signal of its resolve to other countries in the Indo-Pacific region and laid credible foundations to push back against Chinese efforts to dominate the Indo Pacific. It is in the national interest of like minded countries and the QUAD to protect the liberal rules-based order and reject China’s push to change the order and rewrite the rules.

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