Navigating Indo-Pacific Dynamics: Assessing AUKUS, QUAD, and the Evolving Security Landscape

Anil Trigunayat

Even though there are some views that India would be left out if AUKUS expands as its QUAD partners will all be integrated into this security arrangement, QUAD plus will still have the requisite capacity to jointly confront the challenges in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere as the convergences and interoperability become increasingly more salient and sustaining, observes former diplomat Amb. Anil Trigunayat.

For the time being the US appears to be distracted as it has been willingly or unwillingly got dragged into the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars. Both are highly significant for their leadership role and to convince that it is willing to lead in war and peace as a hyperpower.

This distraction has given a breathing space to China which in fact happens to be the US’s sole challenger in the techno-economic space. Besides, through its own QUAD of 3Gs plus BRI, Comrade Xi Jinping is seeking to craft an alternate all-encompassing order as it does not believe in or subscribe to the existing west-denominated and underwritten rules of the game of international and interstate interactions. These interactions are under unprecedented stress as the world order and post world war multilateral institutions are currently on oxygen.

It is for nothing that the Indo-Pacific, with focused hegemonic ambitions, has become the new playground for the great power competition. Sino-US domain strategy from de-coupling to de-risking and from competition to cooperation is still keeping the situation fluid and direct conflict at bay, and it is still in play. But for how long is anybody’s guess? As long as the other theatres are burning, the US would find it difficult to handle the third one in the South China Sea, unless, of course, Beijing becomes adventurous.

Indo-Pacific is the new theatre of competition and hegemony. Various combinations and permutations from trilateral to Quad to the mini and multilateral arrangements like the AUKUS (Australia, UK and the US) have sprung up in the recent past to address various sovereignty and security concerns of dozens of countries in the maritime domain and the littorals.

Late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while speaking at the Indian Parliament in April 2017 propounded the term Indo-pacific with his ‘Confluence of the seas’  stating that; “…the Pacific and the Indian oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and prosperity,” underlying the concept of ‘Free and Open Indo-pacific ‘.

That freedom of navigation has come under stress due to the Chinese intransigence and aggression in its periphery of interest and influence with several hotspots including Taiwan and in the ASEAN. His successor Kishida has further honed up his Indo-Pacific strategy where Japan is clearly abdicating its pacifist postures and limiting constitutional constraints as it feels threats from the Chinese intransigence growing. Caution is better than cure. 

In a recent remark by SIPRI, Japan is significantly improving upon its senshu boei (exclusively defence-oriented policy) to be able to project force beyond its borders. Hence it has undertaken the most significant changes to its security strategy since the end of World War II.

In late 2022, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government approved three policy documents — the National Security Strategy (NSS), the National Defence Strategy and the Defence Buildup Program—that propose a significant expansion of Japan’s military capabilities and a major increase in military spending over five years. Greater budget allocations( 2% by 2027) and newer alliance structures are a prerequisite for this. China is indeed a major challenge for Japan among others.

It is naturally concerned about increasingly frequent Chinese intrusions into the contiguous waters and air space of the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and intensifying military activity in the East China Sea. Moreover, with the dangerous nuclear and missile posturing by North Korea, regional uncertainty has further deteriorated. 

The US had created AUKUS with Australia, and the UK to create a powerful periphery with its security partners. Japan also has a security guarantee agreement and very similar threats hence expanding its security matrix to make it less vulnerable is the normal course. South Korea and Philippines and possibly Indonesia and Vietnam are other countries from the region that might find the idea attractive if the threats further accentuate and go beyond the tolerance threshold including in the Taiwan strait as it will impact energy and other supply chains for Tokyo. 

The US Ambassador to Japan earlier in the week tweeted; “A new era in regional security has just set sail. Regional security requires a regional response. The first-ever quadrilateral maritime training exercise between the US, Japan, Philippines and Australia in the South China Sea is the latest example of what Indo-Pacific defence cooperation looks like. The evolution from hub and spoke to lattice strategic alliances make deterrence all the more credible”.

This in itself informs of the closer engagement and assurances that the US tends to advance to its defence and security partners in the Indo-Pacific. Likewise, there are reports that Japan is likely to join the AUKUS partnership as a new member even though underplayed by Australia and the White House.

Even PM Albanese of Australia categorically denied it being on the table  “What is proposed is to look at ‘pillar two’ of AUKUS and look at a project-by-project, and whether there would be engagement, and Japan is a natural candidate for that to occur, …What is not proposed is to expand the membership of AUKUS”. Even as PM Kishida and the US President are meeting in Washington DC (April 10), this issue will surely be discussed as the Chinese challenge continues to mount.

But in time AUKUS Plus would be as much a reality as the QUAD Plus or BRICS Plus. Changing security dynamics in the fractious global order would dictate greater polarization and securing comfort levels with partners and groupings of their choice.

This news has led some observers to comment that India would be left out if AUKUS expands as its QUAD partners will all be integrated into this security arrangement. In the first place, India does not seek to be part of any alliance architecture-security or otherwise, even as it develops closer partnerships across the whole relationship spectrum with several strategic partners including the US, Japan, Australia and Russia in bilateral formats, including enhancing security engagement through institutionalised mechanisms and regular military and other exercises.

India does not subscribe to a China containment strategy despite border and systemic issues but stands up for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and rule-based order in the maritime domain, which needs to be adhered to by countries like China. 

QUAD, which has diversified into other domains from security to critical minerals and technologies, seeks to jointly confront shared challenges in cyberspace, critical technologies, counter-terrorism, quality infrastructure development and investment, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as maritime security and healthcare domains. India is also aiming to leverage QUAD in its quest to be part of the global value and supply chains. However, in the worst-case scenario, QUAD or QUAD plus will have the requisite capacity to jointly confront the challenges in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere as the convergences and interoperability become increasingly more salient and mutually sustaining.

Amb. Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta, and currently heads the West Asia Experts Group at Vivekananda International Foundation.

The article was published in CNBC-TV18 as Changing global security dynamics — why even an expanded AUKUS can’t replace QUAD  on April 11, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organization.

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Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Vishavjeet Singh, a research intern at IMPRI.