AUKUS Intensifies Pak-India Rivalry By Ozer Khalid

The AUKUS trilateral maritime security pact between Australia, America and Britain realigns the Indo-Pacific’s strategic security landscape and impacts South Asia’s conventional balance of power between nuclear armed rivals Pakistan and India, compelling both states to reassess their evolving nuclear doctrines.

AUKUS is the result of America and China globally locking horns in what many describe as “a New Cold War”. The trilateral security pact will encourage countries to boost their own nuclear capabilities. If Australia can be equipped with more nuclear materials so too can India — Modi and his acolytes will reason.

India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has hinted that New Delhi may alter its “no-first-use of nuclear-weapons” policy. If such Indian-provoked hostility occurs, New Delhi’s war-mongering hawks can trigger a renewed nuclear arms race in a South Asia already teetering on a nuclear knife’s edge.

Such Indian escalation could force China to similarly alter its “no-first-use nuclear weapons” policy, triggering a sinister snowball effect of nuclear armament and proliferation.

The US-Indian collaboration in sensitive defence technologies tilts the strategic power balance in South Asia. If Modi’s BJP retorts to AUKUS in kind by shoring up their own naval nuclear capabilities, this could force Islamabad’s hand to strengthen its alliance with China on the strategic chessboard of naval security in a perpetual nuclear stand-off.

India, with a blatant disregard to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the UN’s UNSC Resolution 255 and the UNSCR 984 related nuclear security assurances since long, operates nuclear combat vessels in the Indian Ocean.

India has proven itself to be highly negligent with nuclear weapons. The state-induced nuclear smuggling and uranium theft in Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Nagpur can easily exacerbate black market smuggling and sales to terrorists. This must be of grave concern to the international community. The radioactive fallout could be cataclysmic.

India has now embarked upon hegemonic maritime brinkmanship in South Asia. The rapid indigenous military modernisation and access to naval technologies escalate Pakistan’s threat matrix.

India already operates the Chakra II (a Russian Akula-class stealth offensive submarine) and the INS Arihant class of nuclear-powered ballistic submarines missiles, including pressurised light-water reactors (PWRs) powered with enriched uranium capable of firing torpedoes and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with a profound potential to jeopardise regional maritime stability.

India not only introduced nuclear weapons in South Asia but has egregiously added a nuclear dimension to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Delhi desperately aspires for a “blue water navy” status and its extensive naval acquisitions enhance Indian warfighting, reconnaissance and anti-submarine capabilities empowering India’s Navy with a strategic outreach in the Indian Ocean. The nuclearisation of the Indian Ocean is a threat to all the littoral states, most notably for Pakistan seeking a credible nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis India.

The AUKUS pact inadvertently catalyses future militarised maritime conflict and great power contests in IOR, embroiling Pakistan.

AUKUS legally leverages a seldom-used loophole in the 1968 NPT and the IAEA Statute, enabling nuclear armed states to divert fissile material away from the IAEA inspection if it is used for “peaceful” pursuits, including submarine propulsion.

India diplomatically hedges security concerns between the US versus China, especially since its diminished role in Afghanistan. New Delhi deployed troops to Russia’s recently held Zapad military drills in Belarus and is a full member of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, Delhi now finds itself in an uneasy limbo where it’s increasingly difficult to diplomatically juggle conflicting priorities given escalating American-China tensions. Delhi is now likely to intensify its naval alliance with Washington DC.

China, to counter Indian unilateralism, could be motivated to forge an AUKUS-type deal of its own with Islamabad, to counterweigh India. This would be a strategic retort by the People’s Liberation Army Navy against India, which the US has, unremittingly, roped into an anti-Beijing alliance.

Naval security ties between Beijing and Islamabad have over the years strengthened by a series of arms procurements, as Pakistan is modernising its naval warfare capabilities by acquiring Chinese-manufactured technologically cutting-edge frigates, confirmed Admiral M Amjad Khan Niazi, Pakistan’s Naval Chief of Staff.

Pakistan Navy’s purchase of Jiangwei-II class F-22P frigates, eight Yuan Class Hangor Air Independent Propulsion (conventional) submarines, Fast Attack Craft Missiles (FAC M like ), C-602 Anti-Ship missiles, FN-16 SHORADS Surface to Air Missiles, including four Type 054A/P multi-purpose naval missile frigate and medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned combat aerial vehicles. Such sophisticated weaponry collectively enhances Pakistan Navy’s surface search and tracking radars, surveillance ships, close-in-weapons-systems (CIWS) and long-range missile capabilities.

With swiftly evolving threat dynamics and maritime security upgrades, Pakistan’s decision-makers would need to intensify the induction of advanced maritime surface platforms like more corvettes, frigates, shallow water attack submarines, and offshore patrol vessels, which gains added urgency in light of AUKUS which increasingly overshadows the traditional QUAD.

Pakistan already is and must further upgrade naval fleet capabilities with modern surface, subsurface and anti-air weapons, sensors and combat management system (CMS) with long-range, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capabilities via long-range patrol jets, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), state-of-the-art weapons and surveillance systems to maintain maritime peace in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

Pakistan amply demonstrated its desire for oceanic and seafaring stability during the Aman 2021 multinational maritime peace-building counterterrorism drill. Aman 21 exhibits Islamabad’s commitment toward responsible statecraft in maintaining peace and security in the Indo-Pacific, Arabian Sea and beyond. In light of AUKUS and escalating maritime tensions between global powers, Pakistan can increasingly host similar peace-driven maritime protection and de-escalation confidence-building naval exercises.

Islamabad could now also explore the idea of entering new Indian and Arabian Ocean Pacts of its own with like-minded allies in a world of regional influence contests and shifting alliances.

Despite AUKUS optics, it will take Australians at least ten years to operate nuclear submarines. Beijing already has an upper edge. China leased the Australian ports of Darwin and Newcastle and has a “Blue Water Navy” capable of operating globally, across world oceans.

Similar to the Afghanistan withdrawal before it, the AUKUS security pact is part of the Biden administration’s swiftly strident foreign policy maneuver to climb to the top of what is likely to become an era of protracted geopolitical tussles and turbulence over the high seas, both literally and metaphorically. South Asian countries must prepare themselves.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2021.

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