Xi will probably be consoled by New Delhi’s cool reaction to the suggestion in January of the chair of the UK’s defence select committee that India and Japan should join an expanded AUKUS.
Monday was an important day for AUKUS, when leaders of the three countries met in San Diego to agree on providing Australia with nuclear attack submarines. This tripartite deal between the US, UK and Australia will provide the latter with a fleet of up to eight nuclear powered submarines, forecast to cost up to $368 billion between now and the mid-2050s.
One US attack submarine, USS Asheville, is already operating out of an Australian port, and under the terms of the AUKUS deal the Royal Navy is due to make its first deployment to Australia in 2027. From then, the plan is for one UK Astute class and up to four US Virginia class submarines to operate from HMAS Stirling near Perth, Western Australia. Beginning in the early 2030s, the US will sell Australia three Virginia class submarines with the potential to sell two more if needed, pending approval from the US Congress. The third phase of the programme involves the design and construction of a submarine to be known as SSN Aukus, to be based on a UK design but incorporate US technology.
The increased Chinese naval power and assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea, has convinced the Australian government that it requires submarines capable of operating far from home bases, both as a deterrent and for attack capability in the event of a crisis. Nuclear submarines have a distinct advantage over the diesel-electric boats currently operated by the Australian navy as they don’t need to surface to snort in order to recharge their batteries. They can leave port and stay underwater for weeks, even months, thus avoiding detection.
Readers of this newspaper will be familiar with the growing influence of Beijing in the South Pacific, in particular Solomon Islands, from its Special Correspondent, Cleo Paskal. In many cases, China uses the seduction of cash to buy influence. But it’s China’s opaque military build-up that’s causing the most alarm across the whole of the Western Pacific. An additional concern is China’s military cooperation with Russia. Last November, Russian and Chinese strategic warplanes, including Tupolev-95 long range “Bear” bombers, conducted joint patrols over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea, which caused US ally South Korea to scramble fighter jets when two Chinese and six Russian warplanes entered its air defence zone.
So how are affected countries reacting to China’s unfriendly behaviour and threats?
It was back in early 2007 that Prime Minister Abe proposed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, under which India would join a formal multilateral dialogue with Japan, the US and Australia with the aim of creating a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Shortly before the September 2021 meeting of the Quad, AUKUS was announced. As two members of the new alliance are also Quad members, some questioned if AUKUS would diminish the importance of the Quad or even upstage it in global diplomacy, since AUKUS is far more overt in its military mission.
This is unlikely, as the most important thing to remember when considering both alliances is that AUKUS is a military alliance and the Quad is not. The Quad focuses on matters such as the economy, security and global affairs, vaccines and climate change. AUKUS, on the other hand, only focuses on military projects, designed to counter China’s adventurism in the Indo-Pacific.
The Kremlin, however, doesn’t accept this clear distinction. Earlier this month, at a meeting in New Delhi, the foreign ministers of the Quad offered a sharp but veiled criticism of China, even as they maintained their Indo-Pacific-focused bloc is not aimed at countering Beijing. Responding, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the United States of “trying to militarise the Quad”, an accusation also often made by Beijing that America is trying to set up a new NATO-style alliance in Asia to counter China in the region.
Speaking later at India’s Raisina Dialogue, the same four ministers insisted that the Quad does not seek conflict with China or to antagonise the country, but rather to promote democracy, good governance, transparency, digital security, global health and disaster relief. “As long as China abides by the law and international norms and acts under international institutional standards, this is not a conflicting issue between China and the Quad”, said Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa, in a rare direct reference to China.
Nevertheless, Beijing remains paranoid about the Quad, largely because it fears India’s sheer size and potential power to shape China’s strategic periphery. Although Beijing has rarely seen New Delhi as a peer competitor, it’s acutely conscious that India could create significant problems for China if aligned against it with other powers. India is a looming superpower, and keeping it from aligning with the United States is a major strategic goal for Beijing. China’s current anxieties are not dissimilar to Beijing’s reaction when New Delhi developed strategic cooperation with Moscow in the 1960s and 70s, an event about which Mao Zedong endlessly ranted. Many recall his loutish and vulgar attempt to describe the relationship as “the bear flaunts its claws—riding the back of the cow”.
One of the main problems in calibrating “Emperor-for-life” Xi Jinping’s reaction to both the Quad and AUKUS is his mental state. Intelligence services in both the UK and US agree that he is no longer the logical actor they had become accustomed to. In the past, for all the prickliness of the relationship, Xi could be counted on to act rationally, which made him relatively straight forward to deal with. His recent speeches and actions have become more ideological and he has become more authoritarian at home and assertive abroad.
Nevertheless, Xi will probably be consoled by New Delhi’s cool reaction to the suggestion in January of the chair of the UK’s defence select committee that India and Japan should join an expanded AUKUS. This would have had the effect of merging the two organisations and blurring their distinctive nature, something India would probably not wish to do. New Delhi will want to emphasise the distinctive nature of the Quad as a robust partnership of democratic nations that espouse and believe in upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific. Given India’s aversion to military security pacts and its strong sense of strategic autonomy, it could never join AUKUS. But paradoxically, this trilateral pact, which involves India’s close strategic partners bringing Australia into the nuclear sub club, serves New Delhi’s interests for a stable balance of power in a Pacific region, rapidly becoming the key global theatre for the century to come.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.