A lot of analysis has appeared since September 15 when the United States, Britain and Australia announced their ‘trilateral security partnership’ called AUKUS. Some immediate reactions have been about the French outrage concerning the US and the United Kingdom supplying eight nuclear power submarines to Australia, which cancelled a French deal.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused the US of ‘betrayal’ and Australia of ‘back-stabbing’. Beyond the immediate French economic concerns, there are larger issues concerning US’ attitude, future of transatlantic relations, the European role in the Indo-Pacific, its impact on Quad, and the overall implications on an assertive China.
This development indicates that the global strategic focus is moving more towards Asia. While the Quad may be a useful forum to talk about ‘free and inclusive Indo-Pacific’, it may not have enough hard power to seriously counter an assertive China. So, with the establishment of AUKUS, the limits of Quad are also becoming clearer. Both may complement each other as their broader objectives could be the same, and some of the members are common. Still, in the coming years we may witness a different focus in both the groupings.
The official Indian position is that the AUKUS is “neither relevant to the Quad, nor will it have any impact on its functioning”. The US has also made it clear that the Quad is “an informal gathering of leading democracies in the Indo-Pacific”. So, in the coming years Quad may resemble the BRICS with talks of global norms and discussions on almost all major issues and concerns. In the near future, the Quad (possible +) declarations will become longer and longer.
Establishment of AUKUS with a submarines deal highlights that the power competition in the Indo-Pacific has a strong maritime dimension. India has relied on Russian submarines so far. If New Delhi has enough resources to spare, we can expect a submarine deal with the US in the coming years. Since Indo-French strategic ties are strong, this option cannot be ruled out either.
AUKUS has left Europe pondering about the future of transatlantic ties, and its role in the Indo-Pacific. The EU adopted its Indo-Pacific strategy at the same time AUKUS was announced. The EU Foreign Ministers expressed their solidarity with France. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, asserted that “challenges of the Indo-Pacific require more cooperation instead of more fragmentation”. European Council President Charles Michel was furious when he argued that “the elementary principles for an alliance are loyalty and transparency,” and “we are observing a clear lack of transparency and loyalty.”
Europeans, and particularly the French, have been keen to participate in the evolving Indo-Pacific theatre. Although their roles concerning China have been somewhat ambivalent due to heavy economic engagements, they could contribute significantly to maritime security and infrastructure development in the region. After all, the EU is one of the largest trade and investment partners of the Indo-Pacific economies.
Various Quad initiatives have shown that Indo-Pacific engagement will be needed at many levels. After AUKUS, the EU’s actions in the Indo-Pacific may become slower at least for some time. Already Europeans were not very keen to be part of the geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific. Now the EU has made it clear that China is very much part of the ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific.
Apart from maritime security, another major action in the Indo-Pacific is happening at the trade front. The Chinese are already leading trading partners of a large number of countries in the region. In 2019 India moved out from the 15 nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at the last minute. Under former US President Donald Trump, the US withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).
Now China has applied for the membership of The Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is the new version of the TPP, comprising 11 nations. China may not get easy access to the grouping, but it shows that China wants to play on its strengths. If China is able to join the CPTPP, it will further consolidate the RCEP and its Belt and Road investments. On the other side, AUKUS could negatively affect the EU-Australia trade deal being currently negotiated. Since the EU trade deals need to be approved by all 27 member states, France alone could stop the deal.
Geopolitically, AUKUS has added another pressure point on China to moderate its behaviour. But it has also created divisions within the Western alliance. The Chinese game in the Indo-Pacific is trade and the BRI. To answer the BRI, the G7, the US and the EU have taken initiatives in terms of B3W, Blue Dot Network and Globally Connected Europe. Now to make their geopolitical moves effective, the Quad and AUKUS partners, particularly India and the US, will also need to add trade initiatives in the Indo-Pacific.
Gulshan Sachdeva is Chairperson, Centre for European Studies & Coordinator Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.