AUKUS, India and the Strategic Dynamics in the Indo-Pacific Region
Varuna Shankar, Young Professional, VIF
Introduction

The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a new geostrategic space represents the new strategic reality of the 21st century. It is a new domain in India’s foreign policy engagement. India’s role is defined by its geography, interest and potential role in the region against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving geostrategic environment. In 2017, the Trump administration referred to Indo-Pacific as a new theatre of competition.

Late Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe way back in August 2007 during his address to the Parliament of India spoke on the theme of “the confluence of the two seas” injecting the strategic concept of Indo-Pacific framework into the highest political level of bilateral relations including Indo-Japan relations. He called it as a strategic space of dynamic coupling of Indian and Pacific Ocean.

The virtual statement on September 15th last year by the Head of Governments of Australia, United States, and United Kingdom leading to the formation of a trilateral security pact AUKUS signals such kind of convergence i.e. alliance. AUKUS is the new security arrangement that aims for deeper cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and greater sharing of defence capabilities within the alliance. It also entails an increase in the exports of arms and weapons from the USA. Australia will be given access to cutting edge military technology by the UK and USA which also includes futuristic capabilities like artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. It is a conglomeration of likeminded countries.

The former Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was careful to draw distinctions. Quad is a ‘plurilateral grouping of countries with a shared vision of their attributes and values’, while on the other hand ‘AUKUS is a security alliance between three countries. He emphasised that we are not party to this alliance and therefore from our perspective this is not very relevant to Quad and won’t impact its functioning.

This also provides us with the opportunity to highlight the role New Delhi had played in reviving the Quad format since 2017. India has emphasised in its public statements about the Quad that it is not a security organisation but a broad partnership focussing on non-security issues, and in the 2021 summit, discussion took place on cooperation over the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine production, emerging technologies, space, cyber security, and 5G deployment and various issues of global concern.

China strongly condemned AUKUS for ‘severely undermining regional peace and stability’ and stated that it ‘intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts’.

According to the leaders’ Joint Statement of September 2021 on AUKUS by White House, through the trilateral arrangement, the governments will strengthen the ability of each to support security and defence interests, building on their longstanding and ongoing bilateral ties. It promotes deeper information and technology sharing fostering deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. It is a trilateral effort of 18 months to seek an optimal pathway to deliver this capability. It will leverage expertise from the United States and the United Kingdom, building on the two countries’ submarine programmes to bring an Australian capability into service at the earliest achievable date.

The thrust will be on interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit. Australia has committed to the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, to ensure the non-proliferation, safety, and security of nuclear material and technology. It remains committed to fulfilling all of its obligations as a non-nuclear weapons state, including to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Also the AUKUS leader’s level statement by White House in April 2022 assessed progress under the pact. It reaffirmed the commitment to AUKUS and to a free and open Indo-Pacific. In the backdrop of Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine, they reiterated their staunch commitment to an international system that respects human rights, international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes free from coercion. A new trilateral cooperation was announced on hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, and electronic warfare capabilities. This helps to expand information sharing and to deepen cooperation on defence innovation.

Recent Developments

The implementation of the AUKUS partnership includes the following aspects:

  • Submarines: It has been seen that AUKUS would provide Australia with a conventionally armed, nuclear powered submarine capability as early as possible, at the same time upholding the highest non-proliferation standards.
  • Advanced capabilities: They would also develop joint advanced military capabilities in order to promote security and stability in the region.

The three countries have in this context held multiple high-level meetings. It includes senior officials Group meeting, National Security Advisors from the three allies met virtually to review AUKUS progress and providing direction to the trilateral partnership. There are also Joint Steering Groups meetings for each of the two AUKUS lines of effort, which also includes in-person sessions in Canberra, London, and Washington, D.C. Several working Groups (seventeen trilateral working groups) have been established (nine relating to conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarines and eight relating to other advanced military capabilities) and each has met multiple times.

The implementation aspects also include Information exchange (The Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement (ENNPIA) entered into force on February 8, 2022,which helps AUKUS partners to share naval nuclear propulsion information trilaterally), Nuclear stewardship which means that combined teams from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States visited multiple sites in Australia to baseline its nuclear stewardship, infrastructure, workforce, and industrial capabilities and requirements.

An Australia workforce has been set up with initial steps taken to ensure Australia has a workforce with the necessary skills, training, and qualifications to build, operate, and sustain a conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarine capability. For instance, a group of Australian personnel have commenced higher-education and training opportunities in nuclear science and engineering. Other efforts include new submarine base, Nuclear Powered Submarine Construction Yard, and non-proliferation as the ideal as governments are proactively engaged with the International Atomic Energy Agency on the non-proliferation aspects of partnership.

AUKUS partners have progressed in the four advanced capabilities that the highest leaders identified in September 2021. They have recently initiated work in four additional areas. These include undersea capabilities through the AUKUS Undersea Robotics Autonomous Systems (AURAS) project, which focuses on collaboration on autonomous underwater vehicles, which will be a significant force multiplier for the maritime forces. Second is Quantum technologies with the AUKUS Quantum Arrangement (AQuA) that will accelerate investments to deliver generation-after-next quantum capabilities. The primary focus will be on quantum technologies for positioning, navigation, and timing. Third, Artificial Intelligence and autonomy which entails a trilateral cooperation on artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomy will provide critical enablers for future force capabilities, to maintain a capability edge and defend against AI-enabled threats.

The early work is focussed on accelerating adoption, and improving the resilience of, autonomous and AI-enabled systems in contested environments. Last is advanced cyber which includes the efforts on strengthening cyber capabilities, including protecting critical communications and operations systems.

Other areas include hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities, Electronic Warfare understanding of tools, techniques, and technology to enable the forces to continue with smooth operation in contested and degraded environments. Innovation includes accelerating the respective defence innovation enterprises and learning from one another which also includes ways to more rapidly integrate commercial technologies to solve war-fighting needs and information sharing.

Implications for India

This alliance expands New Delhi’s options in dealing with Beijing and its belligerent behaviour in the vicinity of its neighbours. It entails that a stronger nation to deal with China that will effectively benefit the whole world without directly getting involved in any direct conflict situation. It also provides a window of opportunity for strategic collaboration with France and deepening trust with European nations. It hence provides an assurance that strategic threat will most likely be robustly met by the collective force.

This new agreement had led to one aggrieved party in America’s ally network. France has lost a US $66 billion submarine deal (12 conventional submarines) with Australia going on since 2016.

Indo Pacific witnesses different coalition form with different tiers of threat perception and varying depth of cooperation among the European players whose interest in the region maybe parochial. Hence, the new alliance has to pass through dynamics of not only changing allegiances in international politics but also test its own structural strength and resilience to day to day challenges.

The alliance may work well because the USA and UK share common heritage, values, and people to people links with Australia. Also Australia is a constitutional monarchy with Queen being the symbolic head. All three are also part of the Five Eyes (Intelligence alliance) nations. For the UK, this provides a platform to familiarise to the acuteness of the Chinese challenge.

Hence AUKUS goes well with India’s outlook, as it would like to balance against China without being the one to confront it. China wants to become a monopolising economic power and enhance its development by becoming a key player in global supply chains. It is not just through BRI but also through initiatives such as vaccine diplomacy, building people to people knowledge network, and exporting critical minerals. This plan can be contested by India without any security encirclement since India is not part of this deal. Therefore the establishment of the new alliance is a win-win situation in the Indo-Pacific as it complements the Quad in geostrategic arena.

It can be a game changer alliance for Quad as well, as without necessary capability upgrade for all its members especially Australia and Japan who do not have the naval muscle to check China in the broader Indian Ocean. It has by and large a positive impact on India as it has always rallied for a broader coalition of countries to work against the structural challenges being posed by China’s rise. It may show an ambitious and confident approach of Indian foreign policy with strong partners, as it allows India a greater strategic room to manoeuvre in the Indo-Pacific region.

Any policy measures that boost capability of India’s partners especially Australia is a welcome move as Australia is also part of Malabar military exercises and also we have in place a two plus two dialogue between the two countries. The post World War world has seen many alliances such as NATO, SEATO and ANZUS. The new alliance in the Indo-Pacific points towards efforts being made to bring a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region which has been disturbed by Beijing’s belligerence.

Major Concerns

There is a concern over possibility of erosion of India’s regional influence in Eastern Indian Ocean with the crowding of nuclear attack submarines in the future. It may also depict US’s unreliability, as it excluded its long term ally France. Secondly, AUKUS may have shifted focus to preferential treatment on the part of US for a close Anglo alliance partner over Quad. It has also affected other multilateral engagement with France as it pulled out of India, France, and Australia Foreign Ministers trilateral dialogue as a mark of protest. Lastly, the clarification by the US that the deal with Australia is one of a kind puts down the Indian expectation of getting nuclear submarine propulsion technology from them.

The navy has also experienced significant delays in the pace of submarine acquisition, with only one-third of those promised in the period from 2000 to 2030 having been delivered. The AUKUS partnership, however, may on the contrary compel India to come to a decision over SSNs. It may encourage it to increase defence cooperation with France, and push it to accelerate its ongoing efforts to build new conventionally powered attack submarines (SSKs) to modernise its ageing underwater fleet and attain self reliance in this domain.

The launch of AUKUS may have a negative effect on India’s diplomatic activity and security dialogues as well. After Australia’s cancellation of its contract to procure 12 SSKs from France, Paris recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington. It also cancelled a France–UK defence-ministerial meeting. It withdrew from a trilateral meeting with India and Australia. Hypothetically, if these trilateral meetings were to resume, it is highly doubtful as to what they could accomplish given the distrust that now exists between Australia and France. Discussions about hosting the first joint Australia–France– India naval exercise were under way but have been suspended.

In terms of India–UK relations, AUKUS served as a signal to New Delhi that London is taking China as a security threat in a serious way. India’s security establishment noted that the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, released in March 2021, described China as the ‘biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security’. But since UK has now made a long-term commitment to increasing Australia’s military capabilities, it may allay concerns in New Delhi that a post-Brexit UK may have different equations in mind.

In the short term, India will probably continue to strengthen its defence and security ties with Australia, the UK and the US on a bilateral basis. But it will be a diplomatic challenge for New Delhi to deepen these relationships while also maintaining balanced relations with Russia, which remains a priority. The Western capitals perhaps may feel disappointed that India has taken a largely neutral stance towards Russia’s military action against Ukraine which includes abstaining from votes critical of Russia’s actions at the United Nations.

Given the sweeping international sanctions that have been imposed against Moscow, India is concerned that long-planned purchases of Russian military equipment and spares will not proceed as before and that it will have to find new suppliers. More immediately, there is some doubt as to whether Russia will deliver components of an S-400 surface-to-air missile system as expected.

AUKUS and Quad

The AUKUS –QUAD binary cannot be seen as a zero sum game. A very intense diplomacy may be at play here to tap the opportunities beyond the binaries. The Alliance has not taken the aura away from Quad; it has merely bolstered and complemented the Quad. The US has in the past always made those hard choices to have an open minded and creative solution to regional challenges. India should provide solidarity with partners instead of scepticism as in the past too civil nuclear deal with India was a path-breaking development in its relations with USA and since then India’s nuclear capacity has been recognised by the world. US sincerity is seen in its immediate call to explain the situation. Hence, AUKUS puts off pressure on India to make any hard security choices.

AUKUS may likely lead to a provocative China that could create instability in Western Pacific having ripples in Indian Ocean too. It also does not mitigate the strategic threat India faces in the Himalayas.

Nonetheless, the new development would consequently increase the cumulative capacity of Quad to deal with China as a common threat. Leveraging AUKUS would strengthen Quad to keep the Indo-Pacific region free, open and inclusive. This way India occupies a sweet spot in the latest alliance. Since India has not explicitly criticised or endorsed the arrangement, its relative silence does not show its lack of interest as its closest partner i.e. Australia, France and USA and emerging partner UK are involved.

The June end summit in Madrid is turning point as NATO’s new way to curb China’s ambitions. The new phase of strategic competition posed by China is being countered by NATO and it involves several key nations from the region which includes powerful nations like Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand (these countries participated in NATO summit). It does so by strengthening their geostrategic relations at the summit to consolidate a continuous system of shared values and objectives in order to promote rules-based international order.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg envisioned a global system based on norms and values, instead of brute violence. This collaboration will be in various areas, including cyber defence, new technologies, maritime security, climate change, and countering disinformation. This kind of joint partnership is not only among them but also with NATO, for whom the partnership itself is crucial to gaining a foothold in Asia.

Conclusion

India’s overarching aim to preserve a favourable balance of power and rule based order in the region and globally is being promoted. The Perception, Priorities, Power and Presence of AUKUS are in alignment to India’s interests. This would open another front for China in the maritime domain thereby dividing its focus and concentration in the Indo-Pacific. US President Joe Biden, while meeting with Japan and South Korea on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid in June, affirmed that a trilateral partnership was “essential” for tackling regional issues.

The war in Ukraine and the action by Russia has affected the US plans, leaving Washington with no better alternative but to strongly support Kyiv in military terms as also the Allies in this regard, in order to avoid any possibility of a breakdown of the security structure in Europe, which until the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 seemed to have been settled. Nonetheless, China remains a systemic challenge to transatlantic security and needs a collective attention of all the powerful nations.

References:
  1. Pradeep R Sagar.(2021).The AUKUS alliance is a win- win situation for India (The Week)
  2. a. https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2021/09/17/the-aukus-alliance-is-a-win-win-situation-for-india.html

  3. Manjari Chatterjee Miller.(2021).The Quad, AUKUS & India’s dilemma. Council for foreign relations https://www.cfr.org/article/quad-aukus-and-indias-dilemmas
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  6. Mohamed Zeeshan.(2021). Is the Aukus alliance a sign of a US pivot away from India?.South China Morning Post https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3150676/aukus-alliance-sign-us-pivot-away-india
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  8. 6.SreemoyTalukdar,(2021), AUKUS has opened strategic opportunity for India and France is key player in the equation,Firstpost
  9. Fernando Prieto Arellano, The Indo-Pacific, Nato’s new way to curb China’s ambitions, June 30, 2022
  10. Maria Siow, New Pacific alliance PBP to counter China’s influence will likely grow to include more European nations,30 Jun, 2022
  11. Joint leaders statement on AUKUS, White House,
  12. c. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/15/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus/

  13. AUKUS leaders level statement, White House,
  14. d. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/04/05/aukus-leaders-level-statement/

    e. Factsheet on implementation of the AUKUS Partnership https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/04/05/fact-sheet-implementation-of-the-australia-united-kingdom-united-states-partnership-aukus/

  15. The effect of AUKUS on India’s foreign and defence Policies (2022) The effect of AUKUS on India’s foreign and defence policies, Strategic
    f. Comments, 28:2, iv-vi, DOI: 10.1080/13567888.2022.2056996 Published online: 22 Mar 2022.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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