Days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves for his first post-pandemic summit with world leaders, the emergence of a new security alliance between the US, UK and Australia – dubbed AUKUS –is bound to alter both the nature of the discussions and India’s position. The AUKUS is a new trilateral security pact, which predicated on transferring sensitive technology for nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, which is meant to act as a force multiplier for the alliance to project military power in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s growing hegemonistic ambitions.
Both US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have stressed that these submarines will be nuclear-powered, but not nuclear-armed, as Australia has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, the technology will enable the Australian navy to undertake ultra-long range and long-duration missions in blue waters. But the announcement of the new strategic alliance, barely a week before Modi meets Biden, Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, does pose a question mark over the future contours of the Quad, as well as India’s role in it.
While issues pertaining to global security are central to the Quad’s raison de etre for existence, the discussions have so far been restricted to non-military threats, such as the need to diversify global supply chains, reduce dependence on Chinese imports, evolving a common strategy to fight the Covid-19 pandemic and combating the impact of climate change. Even as Sino-Indian relations have chilled as the situation on their long-shared border heated up following confrontations between the military forces of the two Asian superpowers, India has been careful to keep the door open for dialogue with China. In fact, external affairs minister S Jaishankar, while attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting with his Chinese counterpart, was quick to distance India’s official stance from chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat’s “clash of civilisations” theory.
After its calamitous exit from Afghanistan, there is mounting pressure on the US to shape a more robust Asia strategy in order to retain its status as a global superpower. The AUKUS is clearly Biden’s answer to China’s move to occupy some of the space vacated by the US in the Af-Pak region. While AUKUS underlines the US’s commitment to remaining a key player in the region, particularly with reference to China, the new security alliance may actually help India build a more robust strategic alliance with other powers committed to countering China’s rising influence, without committing itself explicitly to any sort of open military alliance. At the same time, the AUKUS alliance, with whose members India has strong, long lasting and close ties, would help take some pressure off its maritime borders. Even as it builds its own neglected naval capabilities to counter China’s growing maritime military threat to India’s interests in the Indian Ocean region.
Prime Minister Modi will have to be at his negotiating best at the upcoming Quad summit to ensure that the other dialogue partners commit meaningfully to advancing mutual interests, without committing militarily to any new alliance, which will have long-term consequences for peace in the region.