The New “Cold War” in the Indo-Pacific: US, China & the AUKUS Alliance

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In going out of the way and stunning many countries of the world by a new “permanent” defence alliance – the AUKUS security pact – the US has chosen a closer role in countering China in the Indo-Pacific. The fact that this has come at the cost of the 2016 Australian-French nuclear-powered submarine deal, weakened US-French relations, and new questions being raised at the relevance of NATO – especially with respect to China – further highlights the unwavering intention of the US to call the shots against China in the region.

The Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) defense pact is a unique agreement which will allow Australia access to nuclear-powered submarines and long range missiles from US technology. It is a huge step by Australia and the US to contain China’s exponential growth of influence in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Yet, the critics of this deal have sounded the alarm bells for Australia, on the basis of several factors. These include the fact that this deal has, internationally, ruined Australia’s relations with France and made it an openly anti-China and pro-US country, thereby firmly putting itself on the center stage in the brewing superpower conflict of the Indo Pacific.

In justifying this new trilateral deal, the claim that the submarines will not be used to carry nuclear weapons is a weak one at best. It should be mentioned here that Australia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Perhaps it has decided to violate its pledge to the treaty in order to secure its own interests in the Indo-Pacific, which have been under severe threat during China’s ever-rising influence and interest in the region. What is clear though is that Australia and of course the US had perhaps failed to recognize the severity of the Chinese threat to their influence. In any case, the AUKUS is no less than an act of provocation against China, which will respond by escalating its efforts to maintain and increase its sphere of influence in the region, and strengthen its own military and nuclear capabilities. In short, the AUKUS has been the harbinger of a struggle for dominance and yet another arms race, this time in the Indo-Pacific.

This much is clear from China’s response to the deal. Also, the China’s President has declared that China would resist “interference from external forces”. Their Foreign Ministry responded to the deal by warning the US, UK and Australia to abandon their cold war mentality. It also called out the hypocrisy of Australia as a signatory of the NPT. Since it does not seem that Australia will give up in its efforts to counter China, we have the aforementioned hint of what the future might hold for the Indo-Pacific: a theater of war and an arms race.

In addition, the UK’s participation in the defense agreement also shows its willingness to get involved in the Indo-Pacific following Brexit. Furthermore, the fact that the EU revealed its own strategy for the Indo-Pacific mere hours after the AUKUS alliance was announced has also opened the door wide open for European states to participate in countering the rise of China. It also proved the keen interest of the EU nations in engaging more proactively with the Asia Pacific, a region which is gaining massive political importance by the day. A big reason for their increased interest is also to counter China, with respect to enhancing the maritime security and ensure safe passage through sea lanes. Overall, the French initiative of having the EU engage more actively in the Asia Pacific has bore fruit after the latest French snub by the US, UK and Australia.

It is clear that the AUKUS deal has caused a rift within the Western powers, especially France and the US. In its efforts to alleviate the huge dent in US-French bilateral relations, the US (through its Secretary of State) assured France that the US wants to “deepen cooperation with France, including in the Indo-Pacific region.” This might seem hypocritical on the part of the US, as all three stakeholders of the AUKUS had left out France in the many months of discussions. Given France’s shocked reaction to the AUKUS alliance it might be safe to assume that, besides the nuclear submarine deal, France wanted a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific region. Now however, it seems this move will instead push France to think over its role in NATO. The fact that the French president had termed NATO as brain-dead two years ago makes this seem more inevitable. Perhaps the continuous rise of Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region will enable France and the EU to settle their differences with the US, UK and Australia and work in unison against the future hegemon.

With some of the major powers of the world banding together to increase the pressure on China in the Indo-Pacific and others in the EU looking to follow suit, and with China’s hardline approach to “external influence” in the region, it seems like the Western powers, especially the US, will give China a hard time as the latter strives for more control and influence in the Indo-Pacific. It has given Australia some sort of a deterrent against China, but only the future will tell whether this was a good move or a disaster. One thing is certain though: the Indo-Pacific has become one of the regions sparking the highest interest in the West.

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