Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow. His latest book is “Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World.”
HONG KONG — Earlier this month, the U.S., U.K. and Australia entered into a security pact to support Australia’s development and deployment of nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific Ocean. The Australia-U.K.-U.S. agreement (AUKUS) has been widely touted as an attempt to counter China’s ostensibly rising influence in the region and has been met with significant criticism from core players in the West, including France and Germany. More importantly, it has sent troubling reminders across Asian capitals of the outdated and imperial mindsets of its three partners.
There are two reasons that Asian nations are concerned. The first is the fear that this will lead to a creeping NATO-ization — a growing militarization and transformation of the region, especially Southeast Asia, into a theater of proxy conflicts. Second, it is led by an Anglo-Saxon alliance that appears stuck in a Cold War mentality that seeks to reinstate a Western imperial order in a region that fought long and hard to defeat it.
AUKUS is a slap in the face to Japan and India, which previously joined the U.S. and Australia to counter China in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad. To them and other Asian nations, it should hopefully be the final reminder that there is no power-sharing with old imperial Western powers, who see themselves as masters of the universe, wrapped in a cloak of superiority to preserve their historical privileges. The generic statements from the U.S. and Australia coming out of the Quad meeting in Washington last week point to the dialogue’s newfound uselessness.
AUKUS is not united, and it is not conducive to the preservation of peace in Asia and beyond. Instead, it is a haphazard assembly of disjointed, internally conflicting and externally expansionist Anglo-American interests. It must be rejected by Asian nations, who in the 21st century should no longer be seduced by disingenuous arguments about the need for security pacts led by non-regional players. Such pacts — designed to shore up and restore imperial objectives — belong to a different era.
From The Indo-Pacific To The Quad
Both AUKUS and its closely related counterpart, the Quad, have been viewed as a means of strengthening U.S. regional ties and capacity to supposedly contain China’s maritime presence. In making sense of American strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, we must turn, briefly, to history.
The term “Indo-Pacific” was first coined in the 1920s by Karl Haushofer, a German army officer, intellectual and writer who sought to frame India and China as anti-colonial partners to Germany in its resistance efforts against Western Europe and the U.S. Despite occupying a significant share of the planet’s population, India and China were portrayed largely as passive instruments in the struggle for global domination between Germany and the rest of Europe. One should not forget, given the historical origins of these terms, the racist nature of the sentiments they embody.
The term was subsequently picked up by senior leaders in Japan and the U.S. as a discursive motif highlighting the alleged stakes and interests these respective countries have in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Through amalgamating the Indian and Pacific geopolitical spheres, “Indo-Pacific” subtly provides the legitimation basis for proposals that seek to constrain China’s actions in the region, while lending a veneer of natural credibility to alliances such as the Quad.
The past decade has seen a precipitous increase in the frequency of references to the “Indo-Pacific” in Western geopolitical discourse. Indeed, under President Trump’s recent tenure, the term was brandished as both a threat and signal of the U.S. commitment to marginalizing and excluding China from the global stage. China is portrayed as the natural enemy that binds together non-Chinese countries in the Indo-Pacific, even though the reality is far more complex.
This was where the Quad came in, first proposed in 2007 by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a strategic dialogue between Japan, the U.S., India and Australia. The loose alliance among these four Indo-Pacific stakeholders was matched by significant joint military exercises, with the aim of exhibiting the joint strength of these states in the face of an ascendant China. Notably excluding China, the Quad was halted upon Kevin Rudd’s ascent to premiership of Australia. Rudd advocated a more pragmatic, savvy and moderate approach to Sino-Australian relations. He speaks Chinese and understands China better than many of his counterparts. He uniquely recognized that the alliance, despite amounting to little more than sound and fury, would serve to aggravate China and play into the hands of ultranationalist, militaristic hawks in the country.
The détente, unfortunately, did not last. Rudd’s multi-pronged and ends-driven engagement with China was discontinued after his tenure. Since then, a string of Sino-skeptic and pro-U.S. prime ministers have been driving Australian foreign policy. Tensions between Beijing and Canberra, coupled with American geopolitical maneuvering in the region, culminated with the revival of the Quad in March 2021. Quad members called for “a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific” and a “rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.”
Australia — a country that, if not for its shared Anglo-Saxon settler history with Britain and the U.S., would be an insignificant player in global geopolitics — has used the Quad and the need for the U.S. to have a Western ally in the Asia-Pacific region to stay relevant. In what will inevitably be a post-Western century, this is a big gamble, and it has only served to raise tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.
Seeking to counter and negate China’s claims over the South China Sea, the Quad resumed its mantle as an anti-China coalition. Beyond their shared partial skepticism toward China, the four member states have vastly disparate interests. India and Japan would be particularly vulnerable if tensions escalated with China, given their proximity to and economic interdependence with it.
As the only Quad nation to share a land border with China, India is keen to avoid a repeat of the Galwan Valley clashes in 2020 — the deadliest in 45 years along the Sino-Indian border. Indeed, the U.S. and Australia’s clandestine turning to the U.K. as an additional partner should offer ample cause for alarm among India and Japan, given that there appears to have been little consultation with them beforehand. The AUKUS slap in the face will hopefully get these two Asian giants to walk away from the Quad, allowing it to be swept into the dustbin of history.
Why AUKUS Was A Grave Misstep For Its Members
AUKUS also emerged out of the anxieties of a post-Brexit U.K. — one that had been decoupled (plausibly against its interest) from the umbrella and collective that is the European Union. In constructing a cogent foreign policy, Boris Johnson had a plethora of options. He could have engaged constructively with the U.S. and China alike, playing the role of a savvy middleman and intermediary. He could have formed new ties with Latin America and Southeast Asia, driving forth a flexible and multi-continental trade strategy. But though the imperial era is long over, Johnson opted to stick with a tribe of Western powers. In exchange for what he presumably viewed as the safest option — one that would yield the least resistance given the zeitgeist in Britain today — he abandoned whatever was left of Britain’s credibility among European nations. One can see shades of the decision to partner with the U.S. in the illegal invasion of Iraq, another moment when Australia was there by their side.
In practice, Britain gains little from joining AUKUS. The U.K. not only aggravated China by solidifying the impression that it was pivoting away from constructive and open engagement — it also committed to a defensive pact in a region where the British navy has relatively limited comparative advantage. And the costs of this venture will be significant: stationing two navy patrol vessels in the region for five years poses a sizeable military undertaking, with rather unspecified end results.
For Australia’s part, in its desperation to be globally relevant by seeking American backing over pre-existing arrangements with France, it has substantially undercut its credibility and standing. Furthermore, given the pre-existing nuclear umbrella and sizable U.S. navy presence in the region, it remains highly improbable that the additional nuclear submarines would offer Australian defensive capacities a measurable and substantial boost. As for the optical argument — that Australia may appear to be stronger — much of this would be easily parsed and dismissed by anyone who was in the know. For these submarines to pose an effective deterrent against expansionist or militaristic behaviors from any state, Australia must be demonstrably willing to deploy them in achieving its own military ends. The past six decades of Australian foreign policy offer few grounds for confidence that it would indeed take the initiative of doing so. At best, such submarines would be deployed as a proxy for American interests in the region. Yet, is that truly what the antipodean nation wants — to become a subservient vassal in the imperialist project of another country?
The U.S. does not benefit much from this nascent alliance either. The unilateralist approach adopted by Washington has proven to be both jarring and alienating for core European players. Biden had largely banked upon what he believed was adequate goodwill between the U.S., France and Germany to cushion the blow — but his calculus was proven wrong. In a single stroke, Biden completely undermined his promise to the U.N. General Assembly last week that the U.S. does not want another Cold War. But, ironically, he gave meaning to his statement that “America is back.”
France views Australia’s participation in the agreement as a de facto reneging upon the prior partnerships it has held with France throughout the years. And France took a dim view of the self-interestedness of American foreign policy. Indeed, the French foreign affairs minister called the new pact a “stab in the back.” (Let us also be clear, though, that, for France, this has nothing to do with geopolitics — this was all about billions of dollars in military sales.)
Germany raised concerns that the agreement, brokered in secret, has frayed the relationship between the U.S. and Europe. That kind of discord will likely hamper the prospects for normalization and de-escalation between China and the West. And the fact that the agreement covers so much ground — from underwater technologies and long-range strike capabilities to cyber anti-espionage and intelligence sharing — could also send a misleading signal that provokes China. The establishment of AUKUS has taken the U.S. further away from — not closer to — calibrating a sensible U.S.-China relationship.
Why AUKUS Has Opened A Pandora’s Box For Asia
While much commentary has focused on reactions of countries in Europe and the Anglosphere, it is well worth noting that the population of the three member states in the AUKUS remains a distinct minority compared to the billions living in countries who are neither a part of AUKUS, nor, indeed, its intended beneficiaries. The largest state in India, Uttar Pradesh, has a population of more than 220 million — about nine times that of Australia, three times that of the entire U.K.
First, while Washington has gone to painstaking lengths to emphasize that AUKUS and the Quad are mutually complementary, it can’t have its cake and eat it, too. Words pale in the face of truth — and the truth is that India and Japan have been largely caught off-guard by the U.S. and Australia’s engagement of this nascent strategic alliance, which sits awkwardly in parallel to the Quad. For one, would Japan or India be compelled to take to the defense of British interests in the region, given the U.S. and Australia straddle both? Alternatively, how should states seeking potentially deepened ties in geopolitical terms with Australia and the U.S. — like Myanmar and Bangladesh — navigate the prospective tensions between Indian and British interests in the region? These questions remain heavily underexplored, yet require urgent addressing.
Secondly, Southeast Asian countries have been kept largely in the dark about AUKUS’s plans, despite the recent visits paid by Vice President Kamala Harris to Vietnam and Singapore. The region’s largest country, Indonesia, has already expressed its displeasure. With a population more than 10 times that of Australia’s, Indonesia is a regional power Australia should reckon with and not dismiss as it seeks to curry favor with the U.S.
To say the least, it is clear that a vast majority of Southeast Asian states neither benefit from, nor would they prefer, a world where they are compelled to take sides between the U.S. and China. Southeast Asia has been transformed into a proxy battlefield between these two powers, unwittingly and involuntarily. AUKUS will only serve to bolster the motivations on the part of both parties to seek and establish regional hegemony — which will be to the detriment of smaller and medium-sized states that must bear the brunt of the potential economic and military fallout.
The Road To Peace, And The Roadblocks
At the core of American moves in the region lies a belief so conspicuous, it’s impossible to miss: that China’s rise poses a threat to American interests in Asia. This statement is only true if America sees its interests in Asia as equivalent to American hegemony and imperialist dominance. China does offer a viable alternative to many regional stakeholders, both in terms of its economic multilateralism and its military and geopolitical support. Yet, it would be absurd to conclude, prematurely, that China’s ascent would completely thwart American interests. Waning American influence should not be viewed as being to the detriment of the country and the world alike.
This is not to say that Southeast Asian states should thereby accede to the demands and whims of China. Smaller and medium-sized powers are right to hedge — to delicately strike the balance between embracing a rising China and capitulating to the entirety of China’s vision for the region. Yet, AUKUS does very little to ensure that China’s influence is rightfully managed. Instead, its moves would only instigate and provoke, thereby engendering far greater uncertainty.
The U.S., U.K. and Australia could learn something from the recently unveiled EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, a plan that seeks to combine a strengthened presence in the region with the maintenance of broadly amicable relations with China. The European Union has refrained from explicitly or rhetorically confronting China. While the fruits of that approach remain to be seen, there is at least one point of relative certainty: It grants China and the EU alike more leeway and maneuvering room to navigate the increasingly complicated quagmire that is Asia and the West Pacific.