AUKUS: The new alliance to contain China
SOON after the withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan, President Biden declared in his first foreign policy speech in the UN that the US military power would now be an option of last and not first resort.
He called for international cooperation to meet common challenges and pledged to work with allies. He also asserted: “The US was not seeking a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocs”.
These were, of course, welcome pronouncements, but contrasted sharply with President Biden Administration’s actions and policy towards China.
As if to divert attention from its hasty Afghan withdrawal, Washington forged a new trilateral security pact with the UK and Australia named AUKUS.
This coalition aims to limit Chinese power in the Asia Pacific region, by helping Australia to build eight nuclear powered submarines fitted with Tomahawk missiles.
It is important to note that before the US struck a deal with Australia and England, Australia had already agreed to buy submarines from France. That deal had to be, of course, scrapped by Australia, much to the chagrin of France.
The French government initially showed extreme displeasure by recalling its Ambassadors from both Canberra and Washington.
But soon France was pacified by President Biden’s phone call to President Macron, assuring him that in future such decisions would be made after mutual consultation.
According to the pact, AUKUS will provide a platform to the three countries, to share technology and cooperate militarily.
UK’s Security Advisor Sir Stephen Lovegrove described the pact as: ‘’Perhaps the most significant capability collaboration in the world anywhere in the last six decades”.
France rightly felt betrayed that not only was it deprived of a lucrative business deal, but also kept in the dark by its allies, till the announcement of their pact, which can correctly be called the Asian version of NATO, to contain China.
Besides China and France, countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and even Singapore, showed discontent at the establishment of another military alliance in the Asia-Pacific region.
Soon after the announcement of AUKUS, President Biden also hosted a Summit of Quad leaders.
Quad was formed with Australia, Japan and India as another alliance of regional countries, to fortify an anti-China front. Many Western analysts, however, feel that Quad has now been undercut by AUKUS.
The expected handover of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia by the US has increased the concern of the regional states, over the proliferation of nuclear weapons in their neighbourhood.
Although Australia has signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the comprehensive nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the transfer of nuclear technology in the internationally charged atmosphere has raised the hackles of many regional states.
The transfer of nuclear technology, via nuclear-powered submarines by America to Australia, will provide a convenient excuse to North Korea to quicken and upgrade the further development of its nuclear power.
The presence of highly enriched uranium-powered submarines with a non-nuclear power like Australia will certainly perturb China.
China’s spokesman has said: “It will gravely undermine regional peace and stability, aggravate an arms race and impair international nuclear non-proliferation efforts’’.
The presence of nuclear submarines with Australia would be of tremendous help to the US in its quest of “Contain China Policy ‘’. As China’s rapid rise worried the US, its containment policy needed a more coercive edge.
The submarines which Australia would have obtained from France were non-nuclear and diesel powered, thus of limited efficacy.
On the other hand, the submarines which America would be providing to Australia would not only have nuclear capability but would be on the cutting edge of technology otherwise also. These submarines would thus be a much bigger head-ache for China.
These nuclear submarines would be able to freely navigate in the highly strategic and sensitive areas like the South China Sea and SouthEast Asia.
Although China is currently Australia’s top trading partner; but Australia, it seems, has decided to align with the US in containing China as the polarization in the world increases.
The technology which Australia is getting from the US is so highly sensitive, that the US has formally shared this technology only with one nation — the UK, and that also about six decades ago, when the cold war was on its peak.
President Biden, in order to re-shape America’s foreign policy, seems to have chosen Asia-Pacific as the heart of his containment policy towards China. This seems to be the point from which maximum pressure would be exerted on China.
It seems that the war of hegemony between America and China is moving towards the seas. Whoever controls the seas, may find ascendency in the conflict.
America is hoping to contain the Chinese sphere of influence in the Asia Pacific, with pacts like AUKUS and QUAD including countries like Australia; UK; Japan and India.
The Chinese reaction to all this alliance making activity of the US with other powers to contain Chinese influence in the region, has to be one of concerns and trepidations.
China is likely to see this as a more ominous step by the US towards military confrontation in the South China Sea. Chinese views, under the circumstances certainly carry a lot of merit.
These developments also call into question America’s commitment to the non-proliferation regime and its desire in sharpening the differences between the two largest economies of the world.
To conclude, one has to hope that the two-big powers seriously cooperate, to escape the proverbial Thucydides Trap, a term popularized by American political scientist Graham.
Allison to describe an apparent tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing power as a regional or international hegemony.
Thus, by avoiding war, the two great powers can use all their conserved energy to focus on problems of common human concerns like climate change, human development and universal security.
—The writer, based in Islamabad, is a former Health Minister of KP.