Harsh V. Pant
In less than six months, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—the Quad—is back in action. After its virtual summit in March, this month end will see the leaders of four major Indo-Pacific nations converge in Washington to deliberate on matters of common concern and also signal to China that the platform that Beijing once described as “sea foam” is not only not dissipating, but also gearing up to play a more ambitious role. If the March summit was about laying out an expansive agenda for a still-nascent grouping, the September summit is likely to be about operationalizing the common vision of the four like-minded democracies as they chart their policy priorities in an ever-so-turbulent Indo-Pacific region.
Last week’s landmark security pact involving the UK, US and Australia that will allow Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time with technology provided by the US underscores the rapidly shifting realities of the Indo- Pacific. Australia will be joining a select group of countries, including the US, UK, France, China, India and Russia, that operate nuclear-powered submarines. It will also be only the second nation after the UK with which the US will be sharing its submarine technology.
In an extraordinary move, the US and UK are willing to export nuclear technology to a non-nuclear powered nation. Regional security concerns have been the main driver behind this ‘Aukus pact’ that is being touted as Canberra’s biggest defence partnership in decades, involving artificial intelligence, cyber and other cutting-edge defence technologies. This was made clear in the joint statement that was issued. It described the pact as a “historic opportunity for the three nations, with like-minded allies and partners, to protect shared values and promote security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
For US President Joe Biden, this pact “is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow.” The UK has been more categorical in its response, with British defence secretary Ben Wallace making a case that with China “embarking on one of the biggest military spends in history” and “engaged in some disputed areas”, the UK’s regional partners “want to be able to stand their own ground.”
For Washington and its allies in the Pacific, a new class of nuclear-powered submarines can be of critical value in challenging Chinese military expansionism. It would also allow the three nations to operate more effectively together undersea across the Pacific.
The announcement of this major pact comes against the backdrop of a disastrous withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan that had raised widespread doubts across the Indo-Pacific about the credibility of American commitments in the region. Washington’s latest move will go some way in assuaging these concerns, as it ties America even more closely to Australia’s security mapping.
It also highlights an American willingness to take a strategic approach in working collectively with its allies in the Indo-Pacific, as it seems more willing than ever to enhance their defense potential through the sharing of highly-sensitive defense technology, something the US had been reluctant to do in the past. There seems to be a realistic appraisal in Washington now about the abilities of its partners and the help they need in standing up to their growing regional challenges.
This dovetails with the British desire to play a larger role in the Indo-Pacific, especially after its exit from the European Union. The Boris Johnson administration is keen on projecting the idea of a ‘Global Britain’ as the central narrative of British foreign policy after Brexit, and greater engagement in the Indo-Pacific with like-minded nations is a natural corollary to that. In July, the UK’s new aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, sailed through the South China Sea waters despite denunciations from Beijing.
More recently, China’s envoy to the UK was barred from coming to its parliament in response to travel bans imposed by Beijing on British lawmakers upset about human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Strengthening British ties with traditional partners like Australia and working in concert with the US is one way of getting a greater voice in the region.
Given the historic nature of the pact, it was not surprising that Beijing responded loudly. In its official denouncement, China argued that the three countries “should abandon the obsolete cold war zero sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical concepts and respect regional people’s aspirations and do more that is conducive to regional peace and stability and development—otherwise they will only end up hurting their own interests.” Everything that China is telling other nations today, had it implemented all that in its own policies, the regional environment would not have changed this dramatically so soon.
The latest developments are largely favorable from an Indian viewpoint and as our focus now shifts to the Quad meeting, it is clear that like-minded regional powers are trying to evolve a partnership that will see closer alignment of regional policies and actions as well as greater integration of their defense forces.
The message from Aukus is that while the current churn in the Indo-Pacific may have begun with Chinese actions, it is now other regional players that are willing to set new terms of engagement with Beijing.
This article A signal to China from America and two of its oldest major allies first appeared in mint
About the Author
Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations, Kings College London