Whatever the other effects of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, it has transformed global geopolitics. It sparked four notable geopolitical events. Apprehending China as potentially the principal beneficiary of the emerging order in Central Asia and, through its most important regional client, Pakistan, in southern Asia and, possibly, the Indian Ocean region as well, the United States countered with a new military alliance with its old Anglo-saxon partners — AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and US) to replace the moribund Cold War-era ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, US).
Paris reacted with vehemence with a visibly agitated French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calling it a “stab in the back”. Not only because France lost a US$ 65 billion contract with Australia for its Barracuda diesel submarine that would have kept its high-tech military sector in the clover for a while but because a supposedly trusted, traditional ally, the US, trumped it by offering a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) along with its production expertise, something Canberra could not refuse. It led to Paris renewing its call for a European security alliance that Germany too supports and for the same reason that NATO, rather than protecting Europe and advancing European interests, acts as a handmaiden of the US.
Besides damning AUKUS as a destabilizing move and a strategic provocation, Beijing has reacted by mooting an Africa Quadrilateral of China, Russia, France or Germany, and a group of African countries as counterweight, also to the India-Japan-US-Australia Quadrilateral. But this Africa Quad is a stillborn idea, their immediate anger aside, because neither France nor Germany intends to deal a deathblow to NATO, and because few of the prospective African member states want to alienate the US.
That leaves the future of the original ‘Security Diamond’ or Quadrilateral to contain China that the former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had conceived in 2007 up in the air. AUKUS has occasioned serious doubts about the utility of the Quad other than as its strategic backup — a distinctly subsidiary role neither India nor Japan signed up for. In order to mollify hurt sentiments and to preempt a rethink on the Quad by New Delhi and Tokyo, President Joe Biden convened the Quad summit in Washington and scheduled one-on-one meetings with Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Yoshihide Suga September 24-25. But these meetings have not dissipated the confusion and doubts about America’s intentions.
Arming Australia with a fleet of nuclear attack submarines is, however, a US decision with a fallout. Apparently, Washington considered the fast-changing Asian and international ‘correlation of forces’ to be alarming enough to part with its military crown jewels — technologies constituting the Virginia-class SSN firing Tomahawk long range cruise missiles, a deal that includes the wherewithal to manufacture the boat. To speed up the process of nuclearizing the Australian Navy, moreover, the US reportedly is even considering handing off to the Aussies the three Guam-based Los Angeles-class SSNs as platforms for training crews and maintenance personnel. Until now, the UK was the only country to benefit from such American technological largesse, with Britain being helped to produce eight Trafalgar and Astute-class SSNs and four heavier Vanguard-class nuclear powered ballistic missile-firing submarines (SSBNs).
An Australian Navy with Tomahawk-equipped SSNs does three things. It terminates any plans President Xi Jinping may have had to invade Taiwan with a naval armada and forcibly assimilate it into mainland China by 2049, the centenary year of the Communist revolution, by when Beijing expects the country to surpass the US as the wealthiest country in the world and as a military power to be at least the equal of America. Secondly, it heralds the end of the inequitable nuclear nonproliferation order based on the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty. With the US onpassing lethal nuclear technologies to an ally, Washington will be in no position any longer to preach nonproliferation and sanction proliferators.
And thirdly, it starts the clock on Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear arsenals of their own, convinced as they would be by now that while the US will go to any extent to protect its interests and those of its fellow Anglosaxon partners, and AUKUS is evidence of it, traditional Asian allies of the US cannot bank on Washington to effectively deliver extended nuclear deterrence against an aggressive China. Thinking along these lines began in recent years in Tokyo and Seoul around when the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2015 advised the Japanese government to go get nuclear weapons to tackle the nuclear sabre rattling North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. And this when the far more onerous security threat then as now continues to be China. The US reticence in challenging Beijing militarily is as pronounced with the Democrat Joe Biden in the White House as when Donald Trump was president. But it meshes with America’s long term objective of a G-2 ruling condominium with China that was first outlined by President Barack Obama. AUKUS only furthers this aim.
Most of these developments are unhelpful from the Indian perspective. For instance, building up Australia’s naval muscle will not lessen the Chinese pressure in the Himalayas. But the alacrity with which Washington transferred its most sensitive military technologies to Australia has contrasted badly with the American foot-dragging evidenced in the 2012 India-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative that, other than hot air and shrill sales pitches for the antique F-16 (dressed up as a modern F-21) fighter aircraft, has to-date produced no transfer of advanced technology or any collaborative project.
On the collective security front, with AUKUS emerging centre stage, the Quad has receded into the background as has India’s importance. India can, however, avoid becoming a bit player in an US security scheme by organizing an India and Japan-led modified Quadrilateral (Mod Quad) with Taiwan replacing Australia and a group of Southeast Asian nations substituting for the US, with AUKUS free to cooperate or not with the Mod Quad militaries in restricting China’s options. India has no other alternative to retain its independent strategic status and standing.
Published in my ‘Realpolitik’ column in BloombergQuint.com Sept 27, 2021, at: https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/quad-modi-biden-meet-a-post-aukus-world-and-indias-options