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How AUKUS Could Undermine the QUAD and India's Interests

Sep 25, 2021 10:29 AM 5 min read

New York is abuzz with diplomatic flurry at the moment, courtesy of the annual UN General Assembly meet, where the Indian Prime Minister is scheduled to speak later today. In fact, over the last few days, the PM's visit to the US has been centred around two keywords - QUAD and AUKUS. 

Members of the QUAD - India, Japan, Australia and the US - conducted their first ever physical summit this week, marking a major milestone for the alliance that many had dismissed out of relevance.

But the stunning announcement of the AUKUS deal between Australia, the US and the UK a week ago to build nuclear submarines for Canberra has once again raised questions about the legitimacy and purpose of the QUAD.

And with it, India's role in the growing Indo- and Trans-Pacific resistance against China. 

Today, we look at India's expectations and diplomatic realities in this domain going forward.

Not-So Golden Quadrilateral

The QUAD is officially not a security grouping. It is a diplomatic outreach to the Asia-Pacific by four leading democracies with the intent to preserve peace and stability in the region. 

But anybody with a basic understanding of foreign affairs knows that's just code for a joint opposition to Chinese dominance in the region. The military component of the alliance is muted for the time being but clearly that hasn't deterred the member countries from carrying out joint exercises or pursuing other military interests with each other, like the AUKUS (we'll get to that in a bit). Even the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in its own criticism of the alliance, called it an "encirclement strategy", effectively stepping on this point.

But the conception and development of the QUAD has been rather patchy. After its virtual demise in 2008 owing to a lack of common purpose, it was revived by the Trump administration in pursuance of the tilt in US foreign policy against China. China was quick to call out the "meaninglessness" of the alliance, comparing it to the "dissipating foam in the Indian Ocean". 

But the rising tensions between the two largest economies of the world, China's Belt-and-Road Initiative, the human rights excesses in Xinjiang and increasing distrust towards China by the global community exacerbated the resurrection of QUAD after much-laid groundwork in 2017-21. In fact, Washington was quite keen on furthering the group's military dimensions. 

But, as it would seem, there was a slight change of plans.

Picture: US Navy in the Indo-Pacific


Enter, AUKUS

The announcement of this trilateral alliance came as quite a surprise to even key US allies who claimed they had been kept in the dark. Although France received the most visible nix from the alliance (due to Australia backing out of their $40bn submarine deal in 2016), countries like India and Japan too were poised to receive some blowback.

Let's be clear about one thing. The AUKUS, being a military deal, has acquired more prominence and is a larger credible threat against China than the QUAD. It's goals are more clearly defined. Under the deal, Australia will get the wherewithal to build eight nuclear-powered attack submarines to counter China's expanding naval footprint in the Indo-Pacific. 

Also, half of the QUAD (US and Australia) now comprises two-thirds of the AUKUS, which looks essentially like a migration. The AUKUS also has exceptional security and technology transfer dimensions (including some frontier technology that the US hasn't shared with either India or Japan) which casts a shadow over the QUAD. 

What's odd, however, is that India may have maintained a repressed view of the AUKUS but Japan has welcomed it. 

Why? Two reasons. One, Japan (like Australia) is a treaty ally of the US. So, being framed out of an alliance, although not ideal, isn't as undermining for Japan as it is for India. Two, Japan has been embroiled in conflicts with China long enough to override any diplomatic setback towards itself and rally behind any alliance that intensifies the global anti-China crusade. 

Regardless, the fact that the US looked beyond its "natural allies" and partnered with India shows the strategic heft India had brought to the table. Adding "Indo" to "Pacific" and creating the QUAD coalition meant drawing India into a massive enterprise that would steer the West's policy in the region for the coming years. But uncertainty looms large now. 

Particularly on account of the timing. The AUKUS announcement was made in the run-up to the QUAD summit which signals a big strategic regrouping. All of these indications make it hard to miss the point that India has been, in a way, relegated to a Tier-II partnership with the US and the West at large. 


Rise of the Anglosphere

Let's widen the India-centric lens for a while. The family feud between the US and France has wider implications in the Indo-Pacific and is much to the chagrin of New Delhi, however unwarranted.

France has bigger physical interests (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Mayotte, La Réunion etc.) in the region than AUKUS members like the UK and hence more at stake. The QUAD members even participated in the French-led naval exercise in Bay of Bengal earlier this year. 

Plus, New Delhi's shift in the desire for non-interference in the Indo-Pacific to the rising concern that the West is not prioritising the region enough has meant that the Franco-American fallout could be of great disinterest to India.

So, this new Washington-London-Canberra Axis spelled by the AUKUS gives an impression that the English-speaking world is once again ready to call the shots, even at the expense of its traditional allies. This may be a US message to the world that it's back to the diplomatic fold after the last four years of retrenchment, but whether it is worth snubbing other partners with similar interests against China, is a big question. 

Furthermore, seeing as the QUAD is a legacy of the Trump-era which took four months for President Biden to formally acknowledge after his ascent to the office, shows some erosion of enthusiasm from the White House. The Biden Administration has been quick to overturn policies of its preceding regime. What's to stop QUAD from being an exception? 


Silver Lining(s)

If Richard Holbrooke is to be believed, 

Diplomacy is like jazz; endless variations on a theme". 

One of such variations that India could count on is the fact that the AUKUS is simply a framework agreement and not a treaty which means it's devoid of treaty-level compliance and may never even see the light of day. 

And then there is the element of arms-length approach that would work in India's favour. AUKUS could help India achieve its objectives in the Indo-Pacific vicariously. It could do things India doesn't wish to be involved in directly considering the outsized retaliation that could spark from China with which it shares a 3,500-km long border. 

At the end of the day, the goal to push back against China's increasingly assertive positions in Central Asia, South China Sea, South East Asia etc., could enlist as many participants (i.e. As many countries) as possible. So instead of digesting sour grapes, India could be better motivated to look for the bespoke "shared interests" between QUAD and the AUKUS.


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