AUKUS: the New Power Game in Indo-Pacific Region

Brig JS Rajpurohit, PhD (Retd)
12th December 2021

Picture Courtesy: Getty Images

16 September 2021 has been added as a new chapter in the unique history of alliances when Australia became party to the elite group of countries possessing nuclear submarines, namely the US, UK, Russia, China and India. AUKUS, the select group of three, announced their security pact that will soon be operationalised in the Indo-Pacific region and is likely to impact geo-strategic and geo-economic scenarios. Chinese hegemony has so far been unchallenged in the area. It has forced smaller countries like the Philippines and Indonesia to dance to the tune of China. President Joe Biden has initiated several strategic moves to reshape the Indo-Pacific theatre. As a result, the alliance covering intelligence, cyber warfare, nuclear submarines, and quantum computing techniques has become a reality. The region’s dynamics will never be the same again once the treaty comes into force.

AUKUS: The Alliance

The alliance of the three nations will provide eight nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. AUKUS is an enhanced security partnership that is likely to shape the existing diplomatic, security and defence cooperation between the three powers. Similar to the Five Eyes Alliance, this will initiate the process by improving AI capabilities, quantum technologies, and the cyber domain. The alliance brings the three countries to assert their physical power and impact the trade. The region has numerous existing partnerships that impact intra-regional equations. All these countries have an overhang of China influence in politico-economic affairs.

Indo-Pacific Power Game

The Indo-Pacific region connects 38 countries and shares 44 % of the landmass of the earth. Almost 64% of the population resides in the area and these countries comprise approximately 60% of the world GDP. Over 50% of the world trade passes through this region. This region accounts for around the US $5.5 trillion worth of goods passing through the South China Sea (SCS) annually. Countries with significant stakes are China, South Korea, Thailand and Japan. The economy pushes adrenaline through the veins of the power game in the region.

The region has emerged as a new concentration of powers with their respective geo-strategic and geo-economic goals and ambitions. Chinese claims over many islands and disputes with many countries has added new dimensions to the region. Malaysia has asked for views of China on the deal. Similarly, Indonesia has stated that it is “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.” China has condemned the trilateral agreement. Shyam Saran, a former ambassador, shared his concern that “China has invited the trouble by its own doing. China has been enhancing its naval fleet and its deployment in both South China Sea (SCS) and Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has been unprecedently high and threatening.” Naval expansion and building aircraft carriers threaten Japan and South Korea.

Military expansion of China is no secret and her designs are visible on the horizon. Chinese diplomacy and especially military diplomacy, is dominating the globe. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Indo-Pacific economic ventures have involved a large number of countries. Adverse impacts of economic traps by China are visible in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and other countries. The conundrum of Afghanistan is hardly over and the inking of the AUKUS pact sends clear strategic signals to China. The signatories have publicly accepted the larger aims and the cat is already out of the bag. The ongoing trade war between the US and China has preceded the theatre’s new nuclearisation, and China has vehemently opposed the move. There have been numerous instances of China exerting dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. Deployment of nuclear submarines in the region will impact the shipping and associated security risks.

Strategic assessment and move to dominate the action-centre-control orientation of the US-led to forecasting and shaping the world’s future through the Indo-Pacific region. The shift from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific has been a well thought out action by the US. November 2017 was an oceanic tide taking a turn when President Donald Trump outlined the US vision for the Indo-Pacific region. He called it a top priority and envisioned “a Free and open Indo-Pacific Region.” Joe Biden has added to the flavour and enhanced the existing security cover in the region that Trump designed. The world perceive this as a move against Chinese domination.

Two significant issues are security and shipping trade in the IOR and SCS region. An ideal situation of maintaining peace in the region with no naval forces from the US and China appears a far-fetched dream. However, that is unlikely to happen as China has warned and deployed PLA Navy and PLA Air force to dominate the entire region. Hence, the stage was set for power play to begin. ANZUS, QUAD, and other alliances are supported by the US, but it may be the AUKUS that may break the camel’s back. However, no country wants to antagonize China and yet everyone wants to pursue individual national interests.

Interestingly, the US and EU deployments have been part of various regional operations, and China has remained defensive. The UK has deployed the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in July 2021. France has deployed the French Amphibious Ready Group to participate in exercise with the US. German Frigate, too, deployed a frigate in August 2021. France had claimed that her nuclear submarine passed through the South China Sea in February this year. AUKUS brings in fresh blood in the region and how will it play the power game remains to be seen in times to come.

Will the region become a mongering war arena when every country desires to grow economically? The moot question will unfold itself in due course.

Indian Perspective

India is already a partner with the US in QUAD and has adequate involvement in strategic maritime affairs. India has national assets deployed in the SCS and has direct trade relations with almost all Indo-Pacific countries. Indian assets off Vietnam eastern coast in the South China Sea have warranted the deployment of Indian naval war ships, which has irked the Chinese. The Chinese premier has also objected to digging rigs established by India for Vietnam. Similarly, India-Japan economic relations have not gone down well with the Chinese. The ongoing tussle between China and Japan is a sore thumb that has added fuel to India-China concerns. Chanakya’s dictum of ‘a neighbour’s enemy is your friend’ proves true in both the cases of Vietnam and Japan. India also has substantial trade relations with the Philippines and Indonesia. Hence, a power balance that meets the strategic interests of all stakeholders will be an acceptable solution. Despite deteriorating strategic relations, they have an interdependent trade relationship.

AUKUS is likely to be a solid organisation to thwart any attempts by China to dominate weaker nations economically. Australia has recently announced defending Taiwan if attacked by China and in such a scenario, the US, UK and other powers are likely to support Australia. A similar situation may arise in any Chinese-dominated countries in the Indo-Pacific region, where AUKUS will have a significant role to play.

*The Author is a Retired Indian Army Officer

Disclaimer: The view expressed are personal views of the Author