AUKUS — Another Strategic Disaster? By Aneela Shahzad

The world order established with the two World Wars has never seemed so self-degenerating as it does now in the wake of an Afghan-withdrawal. The Allies are displaying edgy behaviour as they seem to be lining up against each other in the desperation to secure some position on the global chessboard!

Interestingly, the QUAD between the US, Australia, Japan and India has been active since 2007. So what was then the sudden need to build a new alliance, the AUKUS, on top of that, and what could be the wisdom in snatching the AU$90 billion submarine deal from France, and making France an unneeded adversary in all this?

Those who have an eye on history know that the French and the British had been rivals for centuries and only became friends against a common enemy inside Europe, Germany, in the wake of WWI. It’s a type of friendship that is not so much based on fraternity, rather has always worked on the formula of facilitating each other ‘materially’ in exploiting ‘others’ in the neocolonial system. Moreover, the present global order rests highly on the perception of the US, Britain, France and their other allies to be the major players in global politics and it should be considerable that each one of these players is particularly sensitive about maintaining this perception about itself.

So, losing the submarine deal is not just about profits and jobs for France, it’s about losing its global prestige and about the fact that the Allies are not necessarily allies anymore. Already after Brexit, British interests have been put on a different trajectory from that of the rest of the EU, and it seems that Boris Johnson has been weighing the odds for making a global gesture to reassert Britain’s waning relevance in global matters; and in the desperation, he did not shy away from forsaking their vital alliance with France.

Done that, France will probably not hesitate from asserting itself in new ways — after all it cannot afford a weak image over the ECOWAS, the set of post-colonial Francophones countries it dominates in Africa — nor can it afford to lull over its boosted position in the EU after Britain’s exit. So it has to reciprocate by creating alliances in the EU context, independent of the US and UK, as has been done to itself. Other possible ways to reciprocate may include EU recognition of an independent Scotland in the wake of the coming referendum that Scotland is planning for in the next two years.

But another vital question here is whether Australia is going to be a gainer in this deal. In the QUAD pretext, it was felt that the US aimed to make India its major pivot against China, while Japan and Australia would tail along US strategies against China. Now however, with defeat in Afghanistan; its fruitless co-venture with India therein; and after India’s clear impotency against China in the Ladakh crisis; it seems that US has become somewhat wary of giving India that special pivot-status anymore. India can’t directly confront China, nor can it penetrate into Central Asia now. So strengthening India would mean nothing more than creating a next China-type headache in the coming decades. So, what the US has done, is make Australia its new major pivot against China. And that is something that should worry the Australians.

Is Australia ready to become the next battleground, where the US, the UK and their remaining allies would fight their frontier battle for global hegemony? How much does Australia have to lose and gain in this? Though Australia is a developed country, it is facing the same challenges as others in the times of a global recession and the Covid pandemic, and it cannot be oblivious to the fact that China would be thinking and acting preemptively just as much as the US would and in that case, Australia would be an eminent target.

Strategically too, this seems an abrupt move, both from the US and the UK — in highlighting AUKUS, they not only put their alliance with Japan and India in ambiguity, they have also defied France, a major ally. How would the trio expect winning any front against China, without a single ally in Asia, and an EU making its own deals with Russia, China and other emerging entities in Asia. India was already unhappy when the US announced a new ‘Quad’ with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan for ‘Regional Support for Afghanistan-Peace Process and Post Settlement’, in July, and now a minus-India AUKUS would only add to the feeling of desertion — thus the need for US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to call Indian Defense Minister Rajnath, ensuring him that bilateral cooperation will continue as before.

So, will the AUKUS prove to be another strategic disaster after the embarrassing retreat of the US and its allies from Afghanistan? The truth is that Boris Johnson had to find a way to demonstrate that Britain had a global future after Brexit; Scott Morrison had to find an ‘optimal pathway’ for the hefty submarine project; and Joe Biden had to make a fresh move to put the Afghan withdrawal behind and reinvent its strategic energy against China and Russia, while retaining the upper edge. Because AUKUS puts Australia in a direct foreign policy alignment — one wherein Australia loses its ability to exercise its sovereign choices in its foreign affairs regarding China, Russia and the likes. And because the UK will also become more heavily committed with unilateral US foreign policy stances, many times becoming subservient to US approvals, just like it is dependent on US approval for transferring the nuclear propulsion system into the Australian submarines, in the said deal.

Seemingly the US is forsaking the Indo-Pacific idea with India as a pivot and has drifted towards an Anglosphere idea with Australia as a pivot. The question the UK and Australia need to ponder upon is whether they want to be part of a reckless post-imperial nostalgia, or be part of the coming Asian Century. Do they want war with China because they are too vain to accept China as an equal? Or do they want trade with the world’s biggest and most penetrative economy?

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2021.​

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