Few instances have had as profound an impact on global politics as the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, or the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The newly formed trilateral alliance of Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US), titled as AUKUS, is the latest addition in these significant occasions. AUKUS will be covering cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and the most pronounced of them all, forming a fleet of eight nuclear-propelled submarines. The last from the list has been the centre of debate internationally. The reason is the potential fallout for the world at large and the Indo-Pacific region, in particular.
The move is visibly aimed to counter China. This course is fraught with dangers. The Cold War-era suggests that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. There is indeed a backdrop of Australia joining the pact at the expense of offending France. The trade embargo imposed by China has affected Australian trade. Moreover, the Australian calls for a transparent inquiry into the origin of COVID-19 and human rights issues have also offended China. If Australia is investing in these adversarial relations, the situation can only be expected to worsen.
Cold War mentalities are taking over the brief era of neoliberal cooperation. Arguably, China is economically and militarily stronger than the Soviet Union. The declining American power will find it hard to quell the rising influence of China. Therefore, the US must proceed with a calculated response. Unfortunately, for the last few years, the domestic politics of the US has promoted a hawkish approach towards China. The rise of populist rhetoric in the country has made it difficult to choose prudence over belligerence. If such a hardline approach continues towards China, ordinary people of both countries will suffer in the near future.
The growing influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region has been a source of concern for the US and its allies. Australia has been an important ally of the American containment policy. But scholars are sceptical about Australia’s risky reliance on the US. Sam Roggeveen, the director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, says that the Australian assumption that the US will stay for a long time in Asia might be flawed. In his words, the US is in Asia by choice, whereas Australia does not have such luxury. Americans can pack up and go in the face of a troubled situation, but Australians cannot. Therefore, Canberra should reassess its approach towards Beijing.
The US seems to continue to rely on its militaristic solutions to complex affairs. The stakes are very high for this new Cold War because the adversary is diplomatically and economically far stronger than the erstwhile Soviet Union. Arguably, AUKUS has serious costs for the gains that are not certain.
The significance of the event can be gauged from the fact that this is only the second instance when the US has equipped an ally with the sensitive technology of nuclear-propelled submarines. Sixty-three years ago, the British Royal Navy was the beneficiary. That development led the UK to the acquisition of the nuclear bomb. Therefore, concerns for nuclear proliferation are being raised already. The reason for these concerns is the dual-purpose use of this technology. It can enhance the range, speed, and stealthiness of the submarines on the one hand, while on the other hand, the weapon-grade uranium used in these subs can be enriched to develop the bomb.
The alliance is not received without criticism, even in the US. Scholars argue that there are serious diplomatic, economic, and political costs for the Biden administration after signing this agreement. Europe is disgruntled, whereas South Korean expectations of acquiring “nuclear assistance” are expected to rise. There is a concern whether this near-term militarism is going to affect the long-term nonproliferation interests. Moreover, after all this effort, the picture is still blurry. The ambitious alliance does not guarantee to alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region or to pose a credible threat for Beijing because by the time Australia has its first nuclear sub in the year 2030, China is expected to have six more in its arsenal.
Diplomacy is the casualty on both sides. The move has dented the American foreign policy, as one of its key allies, France, felt fooled after Australia refused to buy its much expensive submarines. It leaves a question mark on Joe Biden’s commitment to reinvest in its alliances. European scepticism will only exacerbate if this scar is left untreated. Calls for self-reliance will only get louder. China also failed to mitigate the concerns of its neighbouring countries. The Philippines has endorsed the alliance, whereas Singapore gave cautious approval. Other regional countries are viewing the development with scepticism. Indonesian and Malaysian leadership has already shown their concerns in their respective official statements. In their view, the partnership can catalyse a dangerous arms race in the region. Australia ran to moderate their apprehension, but they did not seem satisfied.
Although the agreement does not directly threaten Pakistan, it significantly endangers the strategic stability in the region, where India is seeking nuclear submarines from the US. Stephen Walt writes in his latest article published in the Foreign Policy that this new strategic partnership is a window into how the world works and the unpredictable places it is heading to. The future of the Indo-Pacific region is uncertain. Pakistan finds itself in a difficult balancing act. Its geopolitical and economic interests are linked with China, but it cannot afford to offend the US because of the latter’s influential role in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Pakistan has to navigate through these troubled waters very carefully.
Global powers have continued to use lands away from their borders. There are uncertainties ahead. The US seems to continue to rely on its militaristic solutions to complex affairs. The stakes are very high for this new Cold War because the adversary is diplomatically and economically far stronger than the erstwhile Soviet Union. Arguably, AUKUS has serious costs for the gains that are not certain. The world was not a peaceful place during the Cold War. People died in the unfortunate lands of Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. If the world leaders do not play cautiously this time, history might repeat itself in uglier ways.