By Rajan Philips –
[Breaking News: This article was written on Friday (September 24) morning (10:30 UTC). News broke out later in the afternoon that a dramatic breakthrough had been achieved in the long standoff involving the detention in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, the high-profile Huawei executive, and the imprisonment of two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig (the two Michaels) in China. Within hours of the announcement, Ms. Meng flew to China from Vancouver and the two Michaels were flying back to Canada. Meng had been detained in Canada since December 1, 2018, on an extradition request from the US to face charges in America for allegedly violating US sanctions against doing business in Iran by companies registered in the US. China arrested and imprisoned the two Michaels in retaliation. The long-drawn-out legal battle over extradition had just been completed and the court ruling scheduled for October. Ever since President Biden’s election, Washington and Beijing had been under intense diplomatic pressure by Canada and allies to break the deadlock. But few expected the sudden announcement of a “deferred prosecution agreement” between the US government and Ms. Meng, without any admission of guilt on her part and free of any future prosecution. The prosecution deferral applies only to her company, Huawei. The Vancouver Supreme Court Justice took just 12 minutes to end the extradition process and let Ms. Meng go free. And fewer people expected China to release the Michaels simultaneously. Apparently, diplomacy worked. Within a week of AUKUS, that this article is about, there has been a diplomatic CACHUS – between Canada, China and the US.]
No, this is not hocus-pocus, the old parody of liturgical transubstantiation. AUKUS is the awkward abbreviation of what Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described as the “new enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.” Mr. Morrison was leading off the announcement of the partnership – joining by zoom from Australia, US President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Downing Street in London. The announcement, separated by time zones, officially at 5:00 PM, Wednesday, 15 September in Washington (late evening in London and Thursday morning in Canberra), came as a surprise to practically everyone other than the three leaders and their officials who had been working seemingly secretly for nearly six months to create the new alliance.
Neighbours (Canada, New Zealand) and close allies (France, Germany, the whole EU and Japan) were notified only hours before the announcement. China was not mentioned at all in any of the opening statements but clearly China is the sole reason for the new global troika. China may not have had a clue of what was coming and was duly outraged. But it was France’s fury that momentarily upstaged the announcement of the new partnership. It was double French fury – the fury of a friend scorned and for a contract reneged.
For at the heart of the new partnership is the supply of a nuclear-powered submarine fleet by the US to Australia, and the unilateral scuppering of Australia’s $40-$60 billion contract to buy French diesel submarines. According to France, the French manufacturer had offered to switch to supplying (the easier) nuclear-powered submarines instead of (the cumbersome) diesel submarines, but there was no response from Australia. Until the announcement of the tri-lateral partnership and a new source for providing nuclear-powered submarine technology. The submarines are to be built in Adelaide, Australia, with technology and support provided primarily by the United States.
In an unprecedented move, France recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, an affront that the US did not risk suffering even under Trump. UK was spared, because France viewed the Breixiter as a minor player in the new Indo-Pacific region. Matters have cooled since, with President Biden speaking with French President Macron and France agreeing to return its Ambassador to Washington next week. Not so with Australia. Macron is still not taking calls from Morrison. Prime Minister Johnson, in Washington for the annual UN session, has playfully told France to “get a grip.” But that will not take away the undiplomatic sloppiness in the announcement of an initiative, which The Economist has called a ‘tectonic shift’ in geopolitics akin to such historic milestones as the Suez crisis (1956), Nixon’s visit to China (1972), and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989).
The motivations for the partnership are probably more parochial than what might be implied by its sweepingly consequential potentials. Of the three Anglo-musketeers, Australia probably was the keenest to pull this off. In recent decades, Australia has been trying to position itself quite comfortably on the fence with a policy of not choosing between the US and China. Australian governments have acknowledged that it was because of China that their continent was shielded from the 2008 global financial crisis. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, and as a resource-based economy Australia has found an insatiable market in China.
Within the last five years, however, Australian leaders were becoming unsettled by China’s aggressive foreign policy, alleged political interferences, and maritime military expansions, as Xi Jinping gradually consolidated his power within China. In 2017, the Australian government banned foreign political donations, banned Huawei from 5G network initiatives, and blocked Chinese investments in many sectors. The last straw was Australia’s calling for an international inquiry into the origins of coronavirus in Wuhan. Beijing bullyingly hit back with import bans and increased tariffs, while China’s Ambassador in Canberra released a list of 14 Chinese grievances caused by Australia.
Australia is not the only country concerned with China’s maritime claims and intensions in the East and South China seas. There is already the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) group of four that includes Australia, United States, India and Japan, and Quad Plus with New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam added, to check China’s maritime claims and promote a “rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.” Perhaps, Australia was looking for something more potent than Quad. The trilateral partnership idea is first said to have been mooted at the highest level when Prime Minister Morrison met Prime Minister Johnson and President Biden during the G7 gathering last June, in Cornwall, England, to which Australia was invited along with South Korea, India, and South Africa as observers.
Britain is a minor player in the AUKUS partnership. It is a major opportunity, however, for Prime Minister Johnson to project it, to his domestic audience, as a part of his government’s post-Brexit global reach for the UK. Few saw this coming in the US, and the currently embattled Biden Administration may have seen the AUKUS announcement as a timely diversion from the Afghan debacle. The partnership has been launched and announced primarily as executive action without prior involvement of the legislature in the three countries. Indeed, there is ‘opposition’ support for the partnership in all three countries. The US Republicans who raised hell over Obama’s Iran deal, have largely ignored the new AUKUS. They are more fixated on abortion and immigration. The two Labour opposition parties in Australia and the UK have generally fallen in line except for some voices of caution. There are of course concerns in Australia that the country may have permanently baked its future with the US. The most prominent critic of AUKUS in Australia seems to be Paul Keating, the 77 year old former Labour Prime Minister.
Backlash to AUKUS has been mostly international, especially among Southeast Asian countries. Aside from France and Europe, and for entirely different reasons, Indonesia and Malaysia have expressed serious concerns over the new partnership. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has made himself unavailable to Prime Minister Morrison, who was forced to cancel his pre-planned trip to Jakarta after the diplomatic snub. ASEAN countries are committed by treaty to a nuclear weapon-free Southeast Asia. They are aware that China, the US, Britain and France have generally ignored their protocols in the South China Sea, and they are concerned about China’s building of military bases on islands with disputed claims. And they fear that the new AUKUS partnership and Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines will only aggravate rather than abate the current trends in the region.
It has also been reported that behind the official voices of protest and concern, there could be some support in ASEAN countries for the new AUKUS initiative insofar as it will “help keep China’s aggression in check,” in the long term. Notably, South Korea and Vietnam have been muted in their reactions to AUKUS. And so is Japan, while Taiwan has welcomed the new partnership. In realpolitik terms, any support in Asia for AUKUS will see it as restoring the balance of power in the South China Sea that has been “tilting too much in Beijing’s favour in the past decade.”
On Friday, September 23, the Prime Ministers of Japan and India had their first post-AUKUS meeting with President Biden and Prime Minister Morrison in Washington. That was also the first in-person meeting of the Quad group leaders. For their part, Japan and India would like to keep the possibilities of the Quad group active and alive, and it would be in the interest of both the US and Australia to keep India and Japan on side. Indian reaction(s) to AUKUS are a study in calculated equanimity.
Friday’s editorial in The Hindu captures this ambivalence in measured tone. Ostensibly, India is neither for nor against AUKUS. A position, apparently, of strategic non-alignment. Specifically, India “does not see AUKUS as nuclear proliferation.” As well, for India, while AUKUS is a “security alliance,” security is not the Quad’s main focus. Quad’s possibilities are wide ranging and include, keeping “Indo-Pacific region free, open and inclusive,” and encouraging “maritime exercises, security and efforts in countering COVID-19, climate change, cooperating on critical technologies, and building resilient supply chains.” The editorial concludes: “With the sudden announcement of AUKUS, a worry for New Delhi is that the U.S. is now promoting a security partnership with its “Anglo-Saxon” treaty allies that it is excluded from, possibly upsetting the balance of power in the region, and setting off new tensions to India’s east, adding to the substantial turbulence in India’s west caused by the developments in Afghanistan.”
The ultimate proof of the AUKUS pudding will depend on how China chooses to eat it. It has already called AUKUS, and not unjustifiably, as a return to “cold war mentality.” Except, Xi’s China is not the old communist power of Mao, and any new cold war will not be predicated on ideological battle between capitalism and socialism. For now, the key takeaways from the botched announcement of an admittedly consequential partnership are twofold.
First, it has upended the so-called Western alliance, isolated Europe and NATO, and created a new Anglo-Saxon club of three – excluding the two smaller eyes (Canada and New Zealand) of the original Five Eyes. Second, and more important, it has created a huge uncertainty over the immediate and long-term consequences for the relationship between China and the West, that will have equally uncertain implications for the rest of the world, in general, and Asia in particular.
Among South Asian countries size will matter. India is in a league of its own, while Pakistan and Bangladesh will have their own calculations. Sri Lanka can be smart and stay clear of the submarine waves – the way New Zealand is doing. Already, New Zealand has declared its waters out of bounds for AUKUS submarines. Alternatively, Sri Lanka can go stupid, take sides and pay the price. The worst of all courses would be to try to play both sides with dishonesty and native cunning.