THE annual UN General Assembly deliberations are currently in progress in New York and PM Modi will address the global body on September 25. US President Joe Biden made his maiden appearance at the UN on September 21) and identified the Indo-Pacific as one of the most consequential regions in the world, and that under his leadership, Quad had been ‘elevated’ to a summit-level dialogue. Such a meeting among the four members took place in early March but in the virtual mode.
For India, a cost-benefit analysis about what constitutes the abiding national interest is imperative.
The first in-person summit of Quad (US, Japan, India and Australia) will be held on September 24 in Washington. The meeting of this dialogue forum comes in the wake of a radical announcement regarding the creation of a new trilateral security alliance — AUKUS — that brings together Australia, the UK and the US.
The AUKUS initiative was a surprise development and the reason it is radical is that at its core is the Biden decision to enable Australia to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines. Traditionally the US has been reluctant to part with such nuclear technology after the exception it had made in 1958 in relation to its major trans-Atlantic alliance partner — the UK.
The AUKUS issue was further compounded by the fact that Australia, in acquiring the nuclear boats, had to cancel a contract with France which had signed a lucrative multi-billion-dollar deal to supply conventional submarines to Canberra. France and China have reacted sharply to AUKUS. Paris has accused the Anglo-Saxon group of ‘stabbing it in the back’, and in an unprecedented move, has recalled its ambassadors from the US and Australia. For now, it appears that the US-led western alliance has been jolted, with France expressing its anger at the betrayal of trust by its principal NATO partner.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman tweeted that nuclear submarine cooperation among the US, UK and Australia ‘severely undermines regional peace & stability, intensifies arms race and undercuts intl non-proliferation efforts’ and added that this is ‘highly irresponsible and shows double standards on using nuclear export for geopolitical games.’ The Chinese English language daily Global Times was more vitriolic and in a harsh editorial warned Canberra: ‘Australia has turned itself into an adversary of China....if Australia dares to provoke China more blatantly or even find fault militarily, China will certainly punish it with no mercy.’
What do the forthcoming Quad summit and the mini-storm created by AUKUS mean for India in the long run by way of its core national interests and current global orientation?
On September 21, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla clarified that in relation to Quad and AUKUS, the two are ‘not groupings of a similar nature’ and added that since India is not party to the trilateral AUKUS, the latter is ‘neither relevant nor will it have any impact on Quad.’
It was reiterated that whereas AUKUS is a nascent security alliance, Quad remains a ‘plurilateral grouping of like-minded countries that have a shared vision of their attributes and values.’
While this elucidation of the Indian position is prudent and familiar — namely that Quad is not directed against any other country — the unstated allusion to China is evident. In the March virtual summit of Quad, there was no explicit reference to China and neither was there a post-event joint statement. Four different statements highlighted the priorities and concerns that each of the Quad members brought to the global table.
The emphasis was on the broad spectrum of regional and global challenges that included Covid and climate change, even while upholding the collective commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific predicated on international law as derived from the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary practice. The fact that China had chosen to reject this consensus about international law and taken recourse to the unilateral use of force by intimidation has been the major global challenge and differently experienced by the region. Some ASEAN states faced Chinese intimidation in the South China Sea dispute, Australia felt the wrath of Covid-triggered trade turbulence with Beijing, and India’s 2020 Galwan experience where lives were lost are cases in point.
Thus while Quad and AUKUS may not have a direct linkage (even while noting that the US and Australia straddle both groups) — the very announcement of intent to make the Royal Australian Navy more technologically capable by way of underwater nuclear propulsion has created deep anxiety and anger in Beijing. From its earlier disparaging remarks that Quad was ‘like foam on the sea that would dissipate’ — China has now become acutely aware of its maritime vulnerability and the reality of the US-led collective resolve to raise the ante and seek adherence to a certain global consensus apropos dispute resolution.
It merits repetition that none of the principal interlocutors who are now smarting from the Chinese pinch wish to move towards any kind of military confrontation but subtle suasion through techno-strategic signalling is embedded in the Quad/AUKUS sub-text.
While Quad leaders have individually dwelt on the same geopolitical theme, it is expected that this time there would be a joint statement after the summit concludes that would have reference to building global supply chains which would bypass China or reduce its salience. Whether this is feasible in the short-term is moot but geo-technological competition extending across the cyber-space-spectrum-AI continuum is likely to be the critical determinant of the next few decades that will pit the disparate global democratic cluster against what China and its communist leadership represent.
India is preparing for its 75th birthday anniversary of Independence in August 2022 and an objective and dispassionate cost-benefit analysis about what constitutes the abiding national interest and where the collective endeavour should be directed is imperative.
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