President Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and PM Scott Morrison announced a new defence pact between the US, the UK and Australia on Wednesday. ‘Aukus’ (Australia, United Kingdom and the US) is meant as a counterweight to China, although the press briefing stopped short of mentioning Beijing specifically.
For Australia, the clear motive is a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to patrol the maritime region. This is naturally being viewed as an upgrade to the deal inked with France in 2016, which would have delivered conventionally powered submarines instead.
The United Kingdom sees this as the first clear opportunity after Brexit to ‘reassert itself on the international stage’. This post-Brexit global Britain, was used as a reason to isolate itself from Europe and hence engaging in an alliance that is centred on the Indo-Pacific region is a direct way for Johnson and his government to reinsert the UK back into the power circles of the international community.
After the Afghanistan withdrawal, the US had seen both its hard and soft power take a significant hit. There was a need to announce a win of sorts after this, and this defence pact is being seen as a means to move on from the Afghan debacle. This also indicates a toughening of Washington’s line on China. Biden’s statement of “Peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term” indicates this.
In the grand scheme of things, this defence pact is not the ‘Eastern NATO’ or a new power equation altogether. A new broad-based alliance would require for more states to join on, but that does not seem likely. Traditional partners in this region such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines already have very complex relations with China and this would only make the issue more pronounced; the only difference is their closer geographical proximity to China.
China is stating that this is an attempt to start a new Cold War, but its muted reaction indicates it is still assessing what this pact will imply for the Indo-Pacific region. The alternative economic approach that China is looking to institute—evidenced by OBOR and CPEC—goes beyond a mere defence-oriented partnership with allies and neighbouring states. This is why it will be interesting to see whether a conventional pact of more submarines in contested waters will elicit an overly hostile response.
Source: Published in The Nation