The new Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) alliance is the latest warning of the looming threat of war in the Indo-Pacific region. In the middle of this month, we saw competing missile tests conducted by North and South Korea, there have been successive and deliberate intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAF), and, most recently, the Chinese have issued a veiled warning against India’s planned Agni-V missile test and have been spotted constructing hundreds of new silos to house their long-range nuclear armed missiles in Gansu and Inner Mongolia.
The hostility between the US and China is no longer constrained. Within a week of telling Xi Jinping over the telephone on September 9 that the US wanted to maintain the “guardrails” on the relationship to ensure “competition does not veer into conflict”, the United States sharply escalated the situation by entering into a new security alliance on September 15. Though China was not mentioned, it is clear that the US aim is to pose a challenge to Chinese naval activity, especially in the southern Pacific Ocean.
A Slew of Security Pacts
The US, Australia, the UK, New Zealand and Canada have a long-standing and dense secret alliance called the UKUSA Agreement. There is also an old non-binding and partially functional Australia-New Zealand-US (ANZUS) security pact, and an even looser Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) linking Australia, New Zealand, UK along with Malaysia and Singapore. Though it has gained headlines because of the nuclear propelled submarine (boomer) decision, the new AUKUS is not simply an arms sales agreement, but a military pact whose full details have not been fully disclosed and whose longer-term implications are not yet clear.
The US has always been most reluctant to share its submarine technology with anyone. However, it has made some exceptions for the UK. And now, the two have roped in Australia into their system. Though the UK conducted 12 nuclear weapons tests in Australia, it has kept the Aussies out of all nuclear issues and Canberra is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state.
In his announcement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that Australia “ has no plans to acquire nuclear weapons”. But as is evident from the sudden decision to get a “boomer”, such commitments need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Technically, the NPT does not prohibit the export of nuclear propulsion technology, but states have been careful in dealing with it. In the case of India’s INS Arihant, for example, the Russians set up a “research” reactor in the Kalpakkam Atomic Power Station; India’s task was to successfully copy it for the Arihant.
The Americans and British are not going to pretend to be scrupulous on this point. But there is one issue of concern. Unlike the VM-4 reactor for the Arihant, which uses uranium enriched at around 20 per cent to 30 per cent, modern US-UK reactors used highly enriched uranium at about 95 per cent, which is also ideal for making a nuclear weapon. It remains to be seen as to how the US-UK work the Australian deal to meet their own non-proliferation commitments.
There has been some talk about the Chinese now targeting Australia in their nuclear scheme of things. But these are somewhat overstated. In contrast to the US and the UK, China retains a “no first use” pledge in relation to nuclear weapons. Second, the profile of its arsenal is such that it can, at best, have a retaliatory capability as compared to the massive US arsenal that could, theoretically, be used for a first strike.
Tensions are high all through the Indo-Pacific, especially its northeast quadrant. Here we have an officially recognised nuclear weapons power — China — as well as an unofficial one, North Korea, which has made it a point to threaten its southern neighbour and Japan with its nuclear weapons and missiles. China has a small maritime dispute with South Korea and a major one over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands with Japan.
Tensions Over Taiwan
In mid-September, North Korea said it tested a strategic cruise missile that could easily evade the network of ballistic missile defences that the South Koreans, Japanese and Americans have established.
The South Koreans did some messaging of their own through a successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. South Korea has no nuclear weapons, but the betting is that prolonged tensions with North Korea could possibly push South Korea, and possibly even Japan, over the nuclear threshold. The experience of the Trump years has rattled both countries and this could have consequences for nuclear proliferation in the future.
Another major point of tension is Taiwan. China claims sovereignty over the island and has not ruled out the use of force in achieving unification. Aggressive Chinese actions, including flying fighter jets into its air defence space, are part of Beijing’s tough tactics.
Temperatures have been rising perceptibly for other reasons as well. In recent months, the Japanese have hinted that they could play a role in defending Taiwan. Last month, President Biden also declared that the US would defend it if it were attacked, but the Americans later backtracked. The official US-Japanese position on defending the island is ambiguous, and these statements have only enraged Beijing which claims sovereignty over the island republic and has not ruled out the use of force in asserting it.
Old Quarrels Getting Nastier
Far off in another part of the Indo-Pacific, there has been the manufactured controversy over the first user trials of the Indian Agni V missile, expected on September 23. The missile, with a range of some 5,000 km, has already been tested several times earlier. This time around, the Chinese responded to the news by citing the UN Security Council Resolution 1172, issued after India’s 1998 nuclear weapons test. Foreign Ministry spokesman and “wolf warrior” Zhao Lijian noted that the 1998 resolution, which is still operative on paper, had called on India and Pakistan to “stop their nuclear weapons development programmes, to refrain from weaponisation … to cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons…”
No doubt this was a statement for the record. The Chinese, who helped Pakistan make nuclear weapons in the 1980s, tested their first weapon in 1990 in their Xinjiang range, and who have helped advance their nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programme since then, are hardly in a position to be seen as serious critics of Indian activities.
Related to AUKUS is India’s own nuclear-propelled submarine programme. India has two ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), the Arihant and INS Arighat, and is building several more. Further, it is planning to build six nuclear-propelled attack submarines (SSN).
India has yet to decide on the design of its new SSN. It could well take off from the Arihant itself and upgrade its reactor. On the other hand, it may go in for a new single-hull design, or approach the French for help.
One thing is certain — with more nations coming up with nuclear-propelled and conventional submarines and new missiles, the Indo-Pacific is becoming a high-risk place. Old quarrels are getting nastier. There seem to be few signs that any of the parties — the US, China, North and South Korea, India, Australia and Japan — are willing to back off. All that can be said is that with two official nuclear powers, and two unofficial ones, the consequences of any conflict could be so destructive that they would change the future of the world.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. 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.)