The U.S.’ announcement of the trilateral AUKUS military grouping and its reaffirming of the Quad alliance are indications of the distinct anti-China direction that its foreign policy is taking, notwithstanding its claims to the contrary.
As the pandemic showed signs of ebbing, more heads of state addressed the United Nations General Assembly in person this time than last year. The session came in the wake of momentous international events, including the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the test-firing of long-range missiles from the Korean peninsula and the emergence of AUKUS, a new trilateral anti-China military partnership in the Pacific consisting of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The September 15 announcement of the alliance took by surprise even the U.S.’ North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies, particularly France, and may have put the future of NATO in doubt. The U.S.’ other major allies, including India and Japan, were not kept in the loop either.
On September 24, on the sidelines of the General Assembly session, four leaders of another anti-China military coalition, known as the Quad, comprising the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, also had their first in-person meeting, chaired by U.S. President Joseph Biden. They agreed to make the Quad leaders’ meeting an annual affair. Its members are continuing with the charade that the grouping is not a military alliance and is only an alliance of democracies. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted that the Quad meeting was not related to security issues. All the four leaders stressed the democratic credentials of their respective governments. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the Quad was based “on shared democratic values” and that it was “a force for good”. On Afghanistan, the Quad statement reaffirmed that the country’s territory “should not be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorists”. Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla told the media that the Taliban government did not appear to be inclusive. Reflecting India’s concerns about Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, the statement denounced “the use of terrorist proxies and emphasised the importance of denying any logistical, financial or military support to terrorist groups which could be used to launch or plan terror attacks, including cross-border attacks”.
Allusions To China
Although China was not mentioned by name in the speeches of the four leaders or in the joint statement issued after the meeting, there were frequent references to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region, which were allusions to China posing a significant threat to the freedom of navigation and maritime security in the region. “Together we recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond,” it said.
The Quad meeting’s agenda focussed on the security situation in the region, the challenges posed by the regime change in Afghanistan, the COVID-19 pandemic response, and issues such as climate change and cybersecurity. In their public briefings, the officials of the four countries preferred to talk about issues relating to vaccine distribution and infrastructure partnerships. Shringla dismissed suggestions that the Quad was created to counter China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The joint statement, however, said that the Quad would meet regularly to “map the region’s infrastructure needs, and coordinate on regional needs and opportunities”, making it obvious that the grouping seeks to challenge the BRI for influence in the region.
The joint statement also stressed the need for “open, fair and transparent lending practices in line with international rules and standards for major creditor countries, including on debt sustainability and accountability, and call on creditors to adhere to these rules and standards”. China’s adversaries claim without basis that the BRI has made many countries fall into a “debt trap”. The accusations have not stopped China from expanding the BRI initiative globally. The statement also reiterated the Quad’s support for the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) “to meet the challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”. The U.S., like China, is not a signatory to the UNCLOS charter.
In his speech to the General Assembly, Modi indirectly criticised China on issues relating to the origins of the pandemic and geopolitics. Toeing the line taken by Washington, Modi said that the World Health Organisation (WHO) should be given unhindered access to further probe into the origins of the pandemic. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, another Quad ally, also demanded an “independent probe” into the origins of COVID-19. The final report released in March after the WHO’s joint investigations with Chinese scientists said that “it was extremely unlikely” that the COVID-19 virus would have emerged as a result of a laboratory incident in Wuhan. Almost all scientific experts have debunked the myth that the virus was manufactured in the Wuhan laboratory.
Again indirectly targeting China, Modi said that international sea lanes should be kept open. “We have to protect them from the race for expansion and exclusion. In a rules-based order, the international community has to speak in unison,” he said. The U.S. and its allies insist on holding military exercises or sending warships through parts of the South China Sea over which China claims sovereignty. The Chinese have no problems with the conduct of international maritime trade in the South China Sea and, as such, there is no threat to the freedom of navigation.
Modi criticised global institutions in his speech. The Indian government’s wrath was directed particularly at the World Bank, whose “ease of doing business” survey of 2018 listed China much above India. World Bank officials scrapped the annual survey after it was found that Beijing had put pressure on top World Bank officials. Modi also had critical words for Pakistan and urged the international community to ensure that Afghan territory would not be used as a launch pad for terrorism again. “We also need to ensure that no country tries to take advantage of the delicate situation in Afghanistan and use it for its own selfish interests,” Modi said. Pakistan, China and Russia are urging the international community to engage with the Taliban. India is siding with the U.S., which refuses to lift sanctions on Afghanistan despite the dire humanitarian situation in the country.
‘The Mother Democracy’
Modi told the General Assembly that India was “the mother democracy”, claiming that the country had been practising pluralism for thousands of years. He was greeted by groups of protesters from the Indian diaspora during his visits to New York and Washington. During the meeting between Biden and Modi in Washington, dozens of protesters gathered outside the White House shouting slogans and carrying placards that read “Save India from Fascism”. The protesters criticised the Prime Minister for what they called human rights violations, the persecution of minorities, the new farm laws and the situation in Kashmir. During the U.S. presidential election campaign, Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, criticised the Modi government’s actions in Kashmir. Biden had said that if he was elected “human rights” would be central to U.S. foreign policy. Since taking over however, Biden has been silent on human rights issues, preferring to focus on strategic and business ties with India. Building an anti-China military alliance is his key priority, and India is essential for this. Atul Keshap, the acting U.S. Ambassador, recently called on Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat. In his first official one-on-one meeting with Modi after becoming President, Biden did emphasise the need for non-violence, tolerance and diversity but stated at the same time that the two countries were destined to be “stronger, closer and tighter”.
In his address to the General Assembly, his first since taking office, Biden claimed that the U.S. was no longer involved in any wars. This was a false claim. Despite ending the 20-year-old war in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army remains militarily involved in many countries. American troops are still stationed in Iraq and remain involved in the fight against groups such as Al Shabab, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. Army is illegally occupying parts of Syria. The Biden administration declared in late September that the U.S. retained the right to bomb targets in Afghanistan without prior authorisation from the Taliban government in Kabul. The war is not really over. Biden told the General Assembly that his administration would give primacy to diplomacy. “We must redouble our diplomacy and commit to negotiations, not violence, as the tool and first resort to manage tensions around the world,” he said. He also claimed that the U.S. “is not seeking a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocs”. He did not mention China once in his speech, but there were repeated indirect references to the country. Biden said that his administration was committed to cooperating on shared commitments such as climate change and would ensure that “responsible competition” would not be allowed to degenerate into open conflict.
A few days after the Biden speech, the U.S. Justice Department dropped its charges against Meng Wanzhou, a top executive of the leading Chinese telecom firm Huawei, who has been under house arrest in Canada for more than one thousand days. The arrest of the Meng, the daughter of the founder of Huawei, at the behest of the administration of President Donald Trump while she was transiting through Montreal, triggered the downward trend in U.S.-China relations. Two Canadian businessmen whom Chinese authorities arrested on spying charges, evidently in retaliation for Meng’s arrest, were released immediately. But Washington has not relented on the other key issues responsible for laying the groundwork for a “new cold war”. The additional tariffs and sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on China are still in place. The Biden administration has in fact imposed more sanctions and is at the same time building more military and strategic alliances in China’s immediate neighbourhood. The Biden administration constantly berates the Chinese government on domestic issues relating to Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong and has reversed the decades-old U.S. policy on Taiwan, actively promoting a two-China policy once again.
Since the Biden administration took over, China has repeatedly been emphasising that for relations to improve, the U.S. should stop interfering in its domestic affairs and keep its military away from China’s land and maritime borders. The AUKUS agreement and the importance given to the Quad military alliances show that the U.S. is determined to maintain its military presence in China’s backyard. The latest developments will only heighten the existing tensions between the U.S. and China. In the waning days of the Trump administration, Mark Milley, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, had to assure his Chinese counterpart that there would not be any U.S. military strikes on the mainland. But the signing of the AUKUS deal is yet another sign that the U.S. will militarily pivot further to the Chinese mainland after its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is a clear sign that the Biden administration will continue to adopt a hard-line posture towards Beijing for the rest of its term. AUKUS has laid the groundwork for an accelerated arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. According to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, AUKUS will foster “deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains”. Under the terms of the treaty, the U.S. will provide Australia a fleet of eight nuclear-powered conventionally armed submarines. The move will have a serious impact on the balance of power in the region and at the same time give Australia, with a population of less than 24 million, access to key nuclear technology. Although India is a “major non-NATO U.S. ally”, the U.S. has not provided it with nuclear submarine technology, despite requests.
Nuclear-powered submarines will give the Royal Australian Navy a far wider reach than it has at present and allow it to participate in the frequent naval exercises the U.S. and its military allies conduct in the South China Sea and off the coast of Taiwan. The U.S. already has 50 nuclear submarines operating in its fleet while the Chinese navy has only 6. China, as of now, is weak in anti-submarine capabilities. Hugh White, who was a senior official in Australia’s defence ministry, told The New York Times that the AUKUS pact was not just a decision to go for nuclear submarines. “It’s a decision to deepen and consolidate our strategic alignment with the U.S. against China,” he said. “This further deepens the sense that we do have a new cold war in Asia, and Australia is betting that in this new cold war the U.S. will emerge victorious.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that the formation of the new military alliance was “an extremely irresponsible move” that had seriously impeded “regional peace and stability”. He added that “seeking a closed and exclusive clique runs counter to the trend of the times and the aspirations of the countries of the region”. He said that those sticking to this “zero-sum mentality will only end up shooting themselves in the foot”. The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed similar views about the Quad military alliance. Most South-East Asian nations are also not happy with the new U.S.-led military alliances. Indonesia, which has territorial disputes of its own with China, expressed its serious concerns “over the continuing arms race and power projections in the region”.
Angry European Allies
The AUKUS alliance angered the European Union countries to such an extent that there was loud talk about the urgent need for “strategic autonomy” and less dependence on the U.S. The European media described the new alliance as an “Anglo-Saxon grouping”. France was so angry with the behaviour of its allies that it made the unprecedented move of withdrawing its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra. (After talks between the U.S. and French Presidents, initiated at the U.S.’ request, the French Ambassador returned to his post.)
The Australian government was until mid September this year formally committed to a separate $59-billion deal with France for the construction of a fleet of 12 conventional diesel electric submarines. The deal was signed in 2016 with great fanfare. Australia informed France only hours before it pulled out of the deal. France described it as “a stab in the back”. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced “the duplicity, disdain and lies” surrounding the sudden cancellation of the multibillion-dollar contract. France is upset that it has been kept out of AUKUS as it considers itself a genuine stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific: it still retains territories in the region such as the Reunion islands and New Caledonia. France is also piqued by the fact that the Biden administration included the U.K. in the new triad gang-up.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Prime Minister Modi after the announcement of the AUKUS deal. Macron was looking for support in France’s diplomatic tussle with the U.S. New Delhi preferred to keep a diplomatic silence on the issue. Many Indian strategic thinkers, including senior retired military officials, are of the view that AUKUS has diminished the rationale for the Quad military alliance. “Fifty per cent of the Quad makes up two thirds of the AUKUS,” observed an Australian academic.
The Modi government continues to insist that the Quad has been reinvigorated only to “pursue a positive and constructive agenda” focussing on climate change, emerging markets, technology and infrastructure.