The signing of the AUKUS agreement marks a departure in the international approach to the
Indo-Pacific. By taking security issues in a head-on manner, AUKUS expresses the United
States’ willingness to tackle China via multi-pronged and dynamic strategies. While the move
has certainly ruffled some feathers in the international arena, therein lies a strong case to
examine the complex historical context, the nuances of the agreement and what implications it holds for India.
A renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific arose with the turn of the twenty-first century, which
allowed for a gradual, eastward tilt in the world order. Increasingly, it has witnessed varied
geopolitical constellations taking shape, due to which the overall region remains ripe with
security tensions. In this scenario, India naturally emerged as a critical stakeholder, striving to
create a maritime architecture that allows equitable growth for all. This was reflected in Indian PM Modi’s speech at Shangri-La in 2018, which affirmed a vision for a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific,’ which is centered around the ASEAN. India had made its stance clear, warning that the region should not turn into a ‘club of limited members’, which can only be prevented by ensuring a ‘rules-based order’.
The Quad was initially viewed as an informal alliance formed by the US, India, Australia and
Japan to provide disaster relief. Slowly it began to broaden its participation in the region, calling for an ‘Asian Arc of Democracy’ offering an indirect counter to China. However, despite its deep ambitions, it has taken the Quad a long time to lay out its objectives to the rest of the world, and till date it remains without a functioning secretariat. What’s more is the inherent hesitation of member countries like India to engage in solid steps toward building stability via militarisation, leaving a security vacuum in the region.
This security vacuum gave enough room for the AUKUS to fill the gap, albeit in almost abrupt fashion. What is the AUKUS? The AUKUS, an alliance signed on September 15, 2021, by the US, UK, and Australia, allows for Australia to develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines developed by the US and UK, increasing western military presence in the Indo-Pacific. The move has on one hand blindsided the US’ regional allies like India and Japan( reminiscent of its hurried exit from Afghanistan, where the US did not consult allies not only in terms of date-setting but also the withdrawal process), while on the other hand, it has ended up infuriating
China, which has vehemently criticised the move for ‘destabilising regional peace, aggravating arms race and undermining nuclear non-proliferation efforts.’ AUKUS can be viewed from different lenses. A coalition amongst the anglosphere nations certainly reaffirms the United States’ conviction to continue its security efforts in the region and provides a ready alternative for the Quad to let off some steam. It also opens up a window for
Quad to work on other areas of cooperation such as- counterterrorism exercises, COVID-19,
climate change, and sharing of emerging technology.
But if we look at the other side of the spectrum, what AUKUS blatantly does is expose what Quad has been unable to do so far, sending a very clear strategic signal. India, viewed as a ‘net security provider’ in the region, now stands at crossroads, where it is obliged to assess its options. It has always attempted to stay away from military engagement to retain its strategic autonomy. Moreover, in light of consistent frictions in the border shared with China, India is reluctant to make any move that might further escalate tensions. Meanwhile, the Quad Summit’s recent announcement of its lofty agenda, still runs the risk becoming a cosmetic move, with little actionable deliverables to offer.
There is a rationality to the argument that a mere supply of a set of nuclear-powered submarines does not completely alter the geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific; but what it does call for, is a recalibration of the Quad and its member nations. The Quad might be here to stay, but so is the AUKUS. While contestations between the powers in the present is organic, concerted efforts should be made to minimize the differences and maximise the overlaps.
In fact, India can take a leaf out of the US’ book, whose policy has been to adapt and to do so undeterred, whenever the situation calls for it. There is of course the possibility of continuing expansion to different areas of engagement, wherein India can extensively build its soft power.
India can also make diplomatic gains with willing allies like France. Time will tell how the
presently non-committal India chooses to respond to the rapidly evolving situation.
One thing is for sure: the Indo-Pacific is in a state of geopolitical flux, and India must take
measured steps to ensure it protects its national interests while balancing them with wider
strategic considerations, as the whole world takes note.