The Beginning of New Cold War in the Indo-Pacific?
The recent trilateral security pact signed among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) creates new waves in contemporary international politics
The recent trilateral security pact signed among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) creates new waves in contemporary international politics. AUKUS is the second security pact after Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (ANZUS) signed a pact in the aftermath of the Second World War. The critics are of the view that AUKUS would unleash New Cold War politics in the Indo-Pacific region.
In the 'New Cold War,' unlike the old bipolar cold war, there is no ideology, alliances form no rigid structures- they are flexible and work based on the members' interests. Such interests may broadly have to do with restricting movement and competition among the US, Russia, and China in certain areas. The curtain of the New Cold War, already unveiled in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea-Caucasus region, has led to a new arms race between the adversaries. The new AUKUS pact would disrupt the existing balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and exacerbate weaponisation and competition between the dominant actors in the region.
Background & Aspects
The Chinese naval maneuverings and involvement in the Indo-Pacific have been growing in the recent past. China is the largest maritime power in the region. Its naval command has a total of sixty submarines, with six of them being nuclear-powered submarines. Since Xi Jinping assumed charge as the President, Chinese foreign policy has become quite aggressive. Its naval presence in Eastern and South China seas regions has expanded. It has also increased its influence in the Indian Ocean region through its 'Perl of Strings' policy. Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, the Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) countries, Australia, and New Zealand have expressed their security concerns about China's increased naval and military activities. Despite China being its main trading partner, Australia has been critical of Chinese aggressive expansionist trends in the Indo-Pacific. As a result, there has been an atmosphere of conflict between these two countries in the recent past.
Although there are two arrangements – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) comprising the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, and the QUAD Plus, which also includes New Zealand – these are limited to broad areas of cooperation. Australia feels that both the QUAD and the QUAD Plus cannot effectively block Chinese expansionism. Consequently, Australia initiated dialogue with the US and the UK in the recent G-7 Summit held at Cornwall, UK, in June 2021 for an effective "military and security" pact. The US has accepted the Australian proposal readily as it would fetch several contracts for its Military Industrial Complexes (MIC) and widen the scope of its ongoing conflict with China. It is against this backdrop that the AUKUS was announced on September 15, 2021.
The AUKUS aims to take up security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. The key element in the pact is to build eight nuclear submarines in Australia. The US and the UK would provide all the technical support. Why nuclear submarines? These have enormous defence capacity compared to conventional submarines. Combined with robust resistance systems, they move quietly and quickly, carrying heavy loads of missiles and possess a much greater launching capacity. Others cannot detect them quickly as they can drown for months together in oceans/seas. So far, confined to six countries ― the US, the UK, France, Russia, China, and India ― Australia will now be joining the nuclear submarine club.
The other aspects of the pact include the sale of cruise missiles, transfer of quantum technology, intelligence sharing, etc. The US had extended this type of cooperation to the UK 50 years ago and is now extending it to Australia. It must be noted that the US and the UK, being nuclear countries, have taken the bold decision to export crucial nuclear technology and equipment to a non-nuclear country under the AUKUS.
Reactions of Others
The announcement of the AUKUS was sudden. Even allies of the US — Canada, the NATO countries, Japan, South Korea, and India — had known about it just a few hours before the declaration. For France, the announcement of AUKUS was outrageous as it tore up Australia's previous contract with France to import twelve diesel engine submarines worth more than 50 billion Australian dollars. New Zealand, which has maintained a nuclear-free territory, has announced that it will not allow the upcoming Australian nuclear submarines in its waters.
Although AUKUS could potentially create present a checkmate to Chinese naval expansion in the long run, two major ASEAN countries — Indonesia and Malaysia — have expressed their concerns about AUKUS, as it goes against the spirit of the Bangkok Treaty of 1971, declaring the "South-East Asia Nuclear-Weapon Free-Zone (SEANWFZ)."
The Pacific Ocean Islands, Papa New Guinea, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, etc., which have been expressing for a long time their concerns about the use of the Pacific Ocean region for nuclear weapons testing, may not welcome AUKUS. Through the Treaty of Rarotonga, entered into in 1985, these island states had declared the "South Pacific Non-Nuclear Zone (SPNFZ)." Australia and New Zealand are also parties to that treaty.
AUKUS could insinuate something critical for India and Japan as well (the other QUAD countries). In its present form, AUKUS is only an "Anglo-Saxon" entity. No Asian member is a part of it. Would it expand and include Japan and India in the future? These countries are maintaining a strategic silence over AUKUS at the moment. What might transpire in the future is unknown, and perhaps, we must wait and watch.
It was but natural for China to sturdily react against AUKUS. It had immediately commenced efforts to deal with the consequences of AUKUS. China admitted Iran as a permanent member of the Shanghai Cooperation Council and Saudi Arabia as a dialogue partner. Although AUKUS is aimed against China, it can pose new challenges to North Korea and Russia from the eastern front.
AUKUS can be considered as a new turning point in contemporary international politics. It is likely to unleash new advances into the Indo-Pacific region, specifically. It will adversely affect the processes of arms control and disarmament in the region. Furthermore, Its provisions violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1971 and the SPNFZ Rarotonga declaration of 1985. The supply of nuclear submarines with 95 per cent refined weapons-grade uranium and the transfer of advanced nuclear technology to a non-nuclear country would make it easy for Australia to develop nuclear weapons (if it decides to do so).
In Japan and South Korea, for the right-wing political parties arguing in favour of their countries developing nuclear weapons, AUKUS would provide a fillip for their demands. The modernisation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems is already on in the US, Russia, China, and North Korea, and AUKUS would precipitate this process further.
AUKUS is likely to boost nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan, resulting in an arms race between Pakistan, China, and India. The cumulative effect would be an increased power struggle for supremacy, with the possibility of a new Cold War in the Indo-Pacific region.
(Writer is Professor of Political Science (Retd.), Osmania University)