AUKUS won’t derail either Quad or Western unity
The trajectory of the Indo-Pacific will be determined by the response of the democracies to Chinese behaviour. We are witnessing a rapid and profound restructuring of the global order
The recent announcement of the AUKUS security pact between the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), and Australia, and ensuing developments, have led to speculation over the future of the Indo-Pacific. Many see the West as poorly coordinated at best and badly divided at worst.
Doubts continue to be raised over the West’s ability to anchor a global effort to secure the vital Indo-Pacific region against aggressive Chinese behaviour. Some also see in AUKUS the relegation of Quad to a secondary position, raising concerns in India about New Delhi’s importance within the larger Indo-Pacific matrix.
Are these concerns legitimate?
First, consider the West, whose uneasy internal dynamics of the past several weeks need to be put into perspective. The grouping has been undergoing considerable churning in recent years. If the four Donald Trump years strained transatlantic relations, then the long Brexit has tested European patience, especially of France and Germany, the anchors of the European Union (EU). Europe continues to grapple with the economic and refugee crises even as its values are challenged at home by member regimes such as in Hungary and a range of far-Right forces.
President Joe Biden’s approach to reforging the West has involved putting the US once again in the leading position, and acknowledging the value and role of allies and partners. It is a sound approach, but the Biden–Kamala Harris administration has had to move cautiously because of strong domestic sentiments, whipped up during the Trump era, that America’s allies and partners were inefficient free riders.
Angry voices from the east of the Atlantic emerged during the Kabul airlift. But at the level of the States, the allies and partners remained remarkably converged.
This backdrop does not explain the French and European responses, but it does put them into perspective. That France has fumed over the cancellation of the nuclear-powered submarines contract is understandable. Its financial loss is staggering. The country’s reputation as an arms exporter has also suffered, lowering its leverage in the global arms market.
Besides, France is the only nuclear power on the continent — a mark of status even in that region. And despite committing itself to the EU project, Paris regularly reminds the world that it prizes its nation-statehood. Anyone who has followed its veil debate would know this.
Further, France is also an Indo-Pacific power. President Emmanuel Macron proposed an Indo-Pacific axis in 2018, much before Quad countries began turning into a strategic grouping. Paris would be right to believe it has suffered more than mere financial loss.
The EU found itself responding awkwardly to the news, not only because of what AUKUS did to France — one of its pillars — but also because the announcement of the security agreement coincided with, and overshadowed, the EU’s own comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy.
France and the EU are consequential global actors and critical for the Indo-Pacific grouping’s effectiveness. AUKUS countries would do well to address the slight and, particularly, recompense France.
But it is unlikely that the strains within will hamper the West’s role in the Indo-Pacific. The drivers of Western unity are deeper and stronger than the events that have caused the current strains.
Western unity is a function of three factors: A malleable civilisational substratum laid over two millennia; shared political values that have evolved, faced reversals and erosion — as they do currently — but nevertheless endured over the past 250-odd years; and a cognitive transformation within its societies, post-World War II, that has practically outlawed resort to force to resolve intra-Western differences.
The emerging “Cold War” pits the West against China, an antithesis of the West in civilisational, political, civic, and social terms. The profundity of the China challenge reinforces Western unity, compelling its member-states to sharpen focus on a region fast turning into the primary field of rivalry.
Second, although the strategic architecture of the region has only begun to take shape, AUKUS is unlikely to replace Quad or place it in the second tier in the Indo-Pacific. Quad delineates the expansive geography of the region, and is currently the name for a strategic vision shared by a number of States wary of China’s aggressive behaviour.
From the joint statement issued after the second Quad leaders’ summit, it is very likely that the grouping will emerge as the nucleus of a number of initiatives, such as AUKUS, that may not involve all of the four founders. And it is almost certain that any important Indo-Pacific initiative will substantively overlap with Quad.
India is central to the definition of the Indo-Pacific and the existence of Quad. Any sub-grouping or initiative that diminishes its position in the region is likely to suffer a serious erosion of relevance before long. The American investment in transforming its relations with India over the past two decades illustrates India’s importance. However, differences may arise between New Delhi and other members if Quad’s political identity sharpens, although those too — as with AUKUS and France — are unlikely to exact a strategic cost.
The trajectory of the Indo-Pacific will be determined by the response of the democracies to Chinese behaviour. We are witnessing a rapid and profound restructuring of the global order. Creaks, complaints, and controversies should be expected. However, it is the capital C that matters most.
Atul Mishra teaches international relations at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi-NCR. He is the author of The Sovereign Lives of India and Pakistan
The views expressed are personal