After nearly two decades of balancing the United States and China in its strategic calculus, including the Quad, Australia finally chose. On September 16, it entered a new Anglo-centric security deal, named ‘AUKUS’, with the US and the UK. AUKUS will coordinate on cyber, advanced technologies and defence, as also on Australia’s field nuclear-powered submarines (though not armed with nuclear weapons). As per Rory Medcalf, chief of the Australian National University's National Security College, this “rubicon moment” in Australia’s foreign policy signalled that there is no going back to China, even though China had been instrumental in boosting Australia’s GDP.
Why Has Australia Always Aligned With Maritime Powers?
Australia, a geographically isolated island nation straddling the Indian Ocean basin and the South Pacific, has rarely been threatened militarily. Only in the Second World War was it threatened directly by a small force; it also doesn’t foresee a direct existential military threat. Yet, wealthy and secure Australia has participated in most wars of the UK and US since 1900 (for example, the Boer War, WW-I, WW-II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq).
The problem is that Australia has a long coastline, a small population (of about 2.4 crore) stretched thinly along its coast, and a sparsely populated interior. To sustain its economy, Australia must trade by sea, and thus secure its sea lanes. This dynamic creates a strategic problem for Australia — it’s not in a position to raise and maintain large armed forces to guarantee the security of its sea-lanes, and by corollary, of its economy. These dynamics affect almost all its foreign policy decisions.
Thus, Australia has traditionally allied with the foremost maritime powers. In the early part of Australia's history, this was Britain; thereafter, it has been the US. But merely having amicable relations does not achieve an alignment — Australia has to offer things that shape the major power's strategic interests. Hence its participation in their wars, bases for the US, alignment with the US’ strategic point of view, etc.
However, Australia’s dependence on maritime trade also means that it cannot oppose another strong naval power. Hence, with the rise of China, the past two decades witnessed many evolutions in Australia’s policies vis-à-vis China, which is still a major trading partner. As per IHS Markit, despite the friction and China's trade measures, Australian merchandise exports to China in May 2021 were up 16% year/year.
The Slow Progress of Quad
The Quad, an informal security construct between Australia, India, Japan, and the US, has its origins in the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. Till the 9/11 attack, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) had generally been free of foreign forces. But post-9/11, the US moved to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean Region as part of the reorientation of US policy towards Asia.
The December 2004 tsunami saw these four countries forming a “core group” for a joint response. This, along with then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech in India, provided the basis for the first iteration of the Quad. This was followed by former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s announcement in 2006 in Tokyo, where he talked about “the usefulness of having dialogue among Japan, India, and other like-minded countries in the Asia-Pacific region on themes of mutual interest”. With the US and Australia on board, the Quad met briefly first in 2007. This was followed by the Malabar series of naval exercises.
There was only sparse progress thereafter.
One reason was that other countries subscribed to China’s narrative that the Quad was a containment network directed at China, and they feared a new Cold War.
With the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ gaining currency, the Obama administration began referring to the Indo-Pacific with suggestions that the IOR is the ideal place to balance a rising China at a relatively low cost.
After Japan’s nationalisation of the Senkaku islands (2012), China increased its coercive activity. Japan responded, tensions rose, and PM Abe called for activation of the Quad. In 2013, China declared an ADIZ in the East China Sea (ECS). The Australia-China relationship also changed with the departure of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and allegations of corruption. In 2015, the US-India Joint Strategic Vision Statement for the Asia-Pacific & Indian Ocean Region was signed. Insofar as India was concerned, the Doklam standoff (2017), China’s blocking of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the incursion into Ladakh (2020), etc., were tipping points.
For the US, Indo-Pacific Is a Better Place to Challenge China
Over time, the perception in the US that the Indian Ocean Region, as opposed to the Asia-Pacific, is a better place to challenge China, gained traction:
Studies showed that the US military may not be able to win a war with China in Southeast Asia/Asia-Pacific on account of the strategic advantages China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) enjoyed in many aspects.
The US has bases in both South Korea and Japan, and it’s also aligned with Taiwan. Hence, any war in the Asia-Pacific, involving the US-Japan versus China, would not only hit four large economies but may also cripple the global economy.
Most nations in Southeast Asia are not keen on participating in a US-China war.
China must protect its energy/resource access, and trade sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean. If it does not, China’s economy and internal stability would be disrupted. If it aggressively protects its SLOC and interests in the region, it would be fighting far away from its home theatre, with attendant disadvantages.
Thus, geopolitical events led to the resumption of the Quad. On September 24, US President Joe Biden will host the first in-person summit of leaders of the Quad.
But Quad Has Problems
But there are three problems with the Quad:
It doesn’t have any clause akin to NATO’s Article 5: “an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all of its members”;
Each member has its own motivations for joining the Quad, and these motivations may not compulsorily lead the Quad to military action against China in support of another member, particularly India;
The US felt that India was not measuring up in the Quad to the US’s standards of strategic reciprocity, which includes access to Indian bases in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The US didn’t understand that operating under its leadership was tantamount to implicating India in the US’s conflicts with China and others, but without addressing Indian issues.
Ergo! The AUKUS. As is evident, the Quad has a broader charter, whereas AUKUS has a military focus. Yet, it remains to be seen whether the Anglo-centric AUKUS will devalue the Quad or allow it to become the antechamber of many like-minded nations that oppose China but do not want to be drawn into a military pact.
A Blow to Nuclear Non-Proliferation
With AUKUS announcing development plans for building nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide over the next 18 months and “focus immediately on identifying the optimal pathway to deliver at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for Australia”, Canberra cancelled its largest-ever defence contract, the 2016 $90-billion deal with France.
The US has reversed its long-standing policy of opposing the transfer of naval nuclear-propulsion technology to any nation (except to the UK).
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists opines that this is a terrible blow for nuclear non-proliferation. The nuclear reactors in the US’s and the UK’s submarines are fuelled with 93.5% enriched uranium, which is above the “weapons-grade” standard of 90%.
This comes at a time when the International Atomic Energy Agency is struggling to prevent Iran from acquiring enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon, i.e., 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU). On the contrary, the US-UK combine is bent on giving away a couple of tonnes of weapon-grade uranium to a country that has no civilian nuclear powerplant except for a 20 MW thermal research reactor, and absolutely no experience in handling nuclear materials, particularly HEU.
And now, China could use the same precedence to transfer an SSN and allied technologies to Pakistan.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)