Beyond Containment: Assessing America’s Alliance Structure in the Indo-Pacific

 Md. Farijuddin Khan
14th October 2021

Picture Courtesy: PTI

President Donald J. Trump called NATO “obsolete” during his election campaigns for the 2016 elections. Several European leaders got upset and the French President, Emanuel Macron, got furious. Well, France is furious and it had recently cancelled a well-organized gala at its Washington Embassy to honour its relationship with its biggest transatlantic partner – the United States. The reason being Australia’s surprise cancellation of a multi-billion deal with France to buy high-tech submarines from France. Instead, Australia chose to purchase from the U.S. for reasons known to the U.S. and Australia. France Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drain, is reported to have called the U.S. decision, “A knife in the back”. Australia’s switching of side with the U.S. may be explained by the formation of a new grouping in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical theatre famously splashed in the news headlines as AUKUS, short for Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. on September 15, 2021.

The AUKUS  has been rumored to be an augmented arsenal to reset the U.S. ties with its transatlantic partners in Europe. Immediately, the U.S. State Department clarified that the new grouping has very common objectives with QUAD strategic dialogue partners and, in no way, hamper QUAD’s objectives and shared purposes. QUAD was established to strengthen and refocus on the main task of checking Chinese aggression and expansion in the Indo-Pacific region.  The four members, namely, Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S., no doubt, share the geographical parameters and sentiments to the main objective – containing China’s aggression and expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the QUAD grouping has many flaws and differences in their approaches as to how Chinese aggression and military expansion is to be dealt with. While Japan and Australia are long-time military allies of the U.S., India is not. While India and the U.S. have certain commitments toward disengagement from China’s economic ‘imperialism’ and have developed plans to reduce Chinese entrenched foot holes in their economic systems, Australia is reluctant to severe its burgeoning economic ties with China. Japan is a committed partner of the U.S. and hence it may fall in line with what its partner ultimately has to choose. Yet, Japanese public opinion swings between having peaceful economic relations with China and avoiding any conflict and the need to remain protected from Chinese influence and hence wants to maintain its commitment to the U.S. as an offshore balancer.

Whereas the AUKUS is more rigid and has more alignment strength when it comes to militarily challenging the Chinese military in both sea and air. The existing special relations between the U.S. and the UK cannot be underestimated. President Joe Biden had to do something substantial to send the right message to its transatlantic partners in Europe that his administration is serious in reconstructing the ties and rebuilding the shared commitment and trust and he starts with the U.S. most important ally, the United Kingdom. President Trump had a different vision and agenda on the matter of his dealing with European allies. President Biden wants to settle the doubt his predecessor created about the future of transatlantic alliance with his, “America is Back” move. He reaffirms his commitment to re-forge the partnership when he called the transatlantic alliance, “a cornerstone of all that we can hope to accomplish in the 21st century” in Munich. It is true. The U.S. relations with Japan and India (especially) cannot be judged in the light of its relationship strength with the U.K. Their relationship has been special and they are still special to each other – something India did not have and, certainly, it cannot have at this point in time. Thus, there is no harm in accepting the special treatment given to the newly formed AUKUS in the strategic thinking of U.S. policymakers under the Biden administration. What is to be worried is the impact of damage it may do to the transatlantic alliance project of which France is an important member.

Assessing the Current Alliance Structure in the Indo-Pacific 

Having said this, there are fundamental issues with the strategic approach of the U.S.-led alliances in the Indo-Pacific when it comes to balancing China. First, the transatlantic alliance that the Biden administration and the EU are attempting to forge definitely has Chinese containment in the background. However, the issue is with what EU member-states perceive in their respective state legislatures and on the streets. Do all the European partners of the alliance have a consensus to join the U.S.-led coalition to strategically counter a massive economic powerhouse such as China just as they did, in alliance, against the former Soviet Union/Russia during the Cold War? Do public opinion in the streets of Brussels, Berlin, and Paris support the alleged importation of the U.S.-led fight against China into the EU? These questions are important to answer before trying to examine and analyze the effectiveness of coalition building to put an “Iron Curtain” on Chinese aggression and expansion.

Second, the U.S.-China rivalry of the 21st century, already tagged as the “New Cold War” by some prominent experts and scholars, is different from the first Cold War the world had witnessed in the 20th century in at least two aspects. China is not the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s. China is a capitalist power and it is an economic superpower. China is a technological powerhouse as well. Whereas, the U.S. is no more a tech power than it used to be in the last century.  China is much more integrated into the world economy as it is with the U.S. economy.  China does not have an ‘ideology’ that the U.S. and its allies could easily gather and counter against. In short, China is different from the Soviet Union. Another point is that the U.S.-China rivalry involves Russia – another major power and the remnant of the biggest threat of the U.S. in the previous century. Russia still has allies in her sphere of geopolitical dominance. In this context, the U.S. will need more friends and allies than they ever need if it is seriously thinking of an effective counter-strategy to contain China and maintain its superpower status throughout the century.

While this line of argument is not new, yet it has strong fundamental elements to counter the narrative that the U.S.-led coalition will succeed in pinning down Beijing or it will at least get intimidated. For a serious assessment of alliance structure in the region, one has to assess the mood and willingness in New Delhi, Tokyo, Canberra, Paris, London, Brussels, etc. At a time when the tone of national politics in most of these capital-cities has shifted to nationalism and a heightened sense of nativist identity politics, countering Chinese expansion becomes a relative issue of priority rather than an immediate challenge to the “free society” or, more crudely, “Western dominance” of the global politics! The rise of an authoritarian state challenging the long-established traditions of international rules and norms is certainly not an expectation. But the inevitability of spreading authoritarianism and imposing its own rules and ideas in the international system is not an outcome that international community should simply accept. Yes, the U.S.-led counter-strategy to curtail China and contain its ambitions within its own boundaries is a necessity. There is hardly an argument against it among the alliance partners in Europe and Indo-Pacific. However, a comprehensive strategy with full consensus on it is lacking. On the other hand, China is doing what it wants to do with calculated steps. It is, somehow, not showcasing its ambition, if it really has, to counter U.S. hegemony around the globe. It seems that its interest lies in its immediate neighbourhood in East Asia including the South China Sea region and at the most Indian Ocean, which is a major red flag for India.

In the conclusion, one can say that the Cold War-style rivalry is a reality between the two giants. Phrases such as ‘trade war’, ‘air space violation’, ‘protecting Taiwan’/’Strait of Taiwan’, ‘Chinese military vessels reaching African edge’, etc. connote an ongoing intense rivalry – the outcome of which is not in everyone’s wish-list to predict. Nonetheless, the U.S.-led coalition alliance structure in the Indo-Pacific region needs a serious deliberation in order to effectively counter any unwanted moves by China in the free and open geostrategic space called the Indo-Pacific. The reset of the transatlantic alliance is a necessary step in these efforts. Yet, the element of consensus and unilateral agreement on the pointed agenda of protecting the shared values and interests needs to be deliberated sincerely before it is called a success and celebration starts.

*The Author is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and International Politics,

 Imphal College, Imphal, Manipur University

Disclaimer: The Views expressed in the Article are of the Author