With signs of Beijing seemingly escaping from releasing the Wuhan Virus, China’s aggressive moves are on the rise, buoyed by the America’s humiliation in Afghanistan. Beijing has brushed outbreak of the third pandemic wave in China under the carpet through propaganda of having vaccinated over one billion population. The global clamour over China’s human rights violation has subsided and China has imprisoned many youth for 8-10 months for holding a vigil for victims of the Tiananmen massacre. The west is in no position to denounce this outrageous act after abandoning the population of Afghanistan to monstrous human tragedy under the Taliban.
China’s muscle flexing has gone up exponentially in recent weeks: large-scale aerial intrusions in neighbouring territories, particularly against Taiwan; barging into territorial waters of other nations; China’s Revised Maritime Traffic Safety Law to legalize its illegal claim over entire South China Sea in brazen contravention to UNCLOS; chain of large-scale manoeuvres and exercises at sea including firing drills, amphibious operations, and encircling islands and reefs, curtailing movement of foreign vessels and the like.
The Chinese dragon’s left nuclear talon North Korea (Pakistan being the right nuclear talon) fired off two ballistic missiles on September 15 that fell outside Japanese waters. These were the first rail-based ballistic missile fired by North Korea which are difficult to track – the technology probably acquired from China. Within few hours of North Korean missiles launch, South Korea launched an SLBM becoming the first non-nuclear armed state to demonstrate SLBM capability. Significantly, the US had lifted missile restrictions on South Korea just four months back – on May 21, 2021.
Concurrently on the same day (September 15), the US, UK and Australia announced a trilateral security partnership termed AUKUS, as part of which Australia is to get six nuclear powered submarines within a span of 18 months as also advanced technology – making Australia the member of an exclusive club of only six nations having nuclear-powered submarines; US, UK, France, China, India and Russia. The US had last shared the nuclear propulsion technology with the UK in 1958.
In a joint appearance with US President Joe Biden in the White House flanked by virtual presence of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Biden announced that for deepening diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, AUKUS was being established as a trilateral security partnership to strengthen mutual ability for supporting security and defence interests through fostering deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. There was a moment of humour as Biden forgetting Morrison’s name called him “that fellow Down Under”.
The sudden AUKUS announcement has angered France with whom Australia had inked a deal for 12 conventional diesel-powered submarines. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said, “It’s a stab in the back. This unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision is very similar to what Mr Trump used to do.” France had won the tender for the submarines two years back in which US and UK did not participate and France was about to embark on a US$43 billion submarine program.
Compared to diesel-powered submarines, nuclear powered submarines are faster, stealthier, can cover greater distances and can remain submerged for months because of better endurance capability. The EU is unhappy that the AUKUS announcement was made without consulting the EU. Of late, EU has also been voicing need for their own collective security architecture and strategic autonomy. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed the focus on the Indo-Pacific but said Australia’s new nuclear-powered submarines would not be allowed in its territorial waters under a long-standing nuclear free policy.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated, “Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region, the Indo-Pacific. To meet these challenges, to help deliver the security and stability our region needs, we must now take our partnership to a new level. AUKUS will also enhance our contribution to our growing network of partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region: ANZUS; our ASEAN friends; our bilateral strategic partners, the Quad; Five Eyes countries; and, of course, our dear Pacific family.”
But it is China whose tail is smoldering because of the AUKUS announcement though the AUKUS leaders had pointedly stated that the pact is not directed against any country. Morrison has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping for talks after AUKUS was announced. Beijing has slammed AUKUS saying it smacked of a Cold War mentality and ideological prejudices, exclusionary blocs targeting or harming interests of third parties should not be built, the irresponsible move will intensify the arms race and the partnership will be damaging regional peace and security, and that Australia’s neighbours should question its sincerity.
China’s response is a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black. It is China’s rogue behaviour, aggressiveness and defiance of global norms that is evoking such responses. The sudden announcement of AUKUS days before the in-person meet of Quad leaders to be chaired by Biden has evoked multiple responses. One view is that UK could have simply been added to Quad rather than a separate AUKUS. But then Quad is not a military alliance whereas AUKUS is.
From the US viewpoint, AUKUS mitigates to an extent American reliability being questioned by alliance partners after the mess in Afghanistan. More importantly, it signals America’s political resolve to deter China and also ensures Australian support to the US in the event of war with China. For Australia, the pact boosts its defence potential and its value as a net security provider, which in turn adds to the values of the Quad aimed at an free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton reportedly called up their Indian counterparts EAM S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on September 15 to apprise them about the AUKUS partnership. India has not made any immediate comments on this new development but it is more than evident that AUKUS and Quad stand to complement each other and in conveying a strong message to China, given that the US and Australia are also members of the Quad.
Finally, considering that Chinese aggressiveness is unlikely to abate because of its quest for world domination, there is a fit case to expand and further energize the Quad as well as the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) comprising Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom.