THE recent Quad leaders meeting in the White House on September 24 appears to have shifted focus away from its original framing as a security dialogue between four countries, the US, India, Japan and Australia. Instead, the US seems to be moving much closer to Australia as a close strategic partner and providing it with nuclear submarines.
Supplying US nuclear submarines that use bomb-grade uranium violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency protocols. Considering that the US wants Iran not to enrich uranium beyond 3.67 per cent, this is blowing a big hole in its so-called rule-based international order; unless we all agree that the rule-based international order is essentially the US and its allies making up all the rules.
The Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe had initiated the idea of the Quad in 2007 as a security dialogue. In the statement issued after the first formal meeting of the Quad countries dated March 12, 2021, security was used in the sense of strategic security. Before the recent meeting of the Quad, both the US and the Indian sides denied that it was a military alliance. Even though the Quad countries conduct joint naval exercises – the Malabar exercises –and have signed various military agreements, the September 24 Quad joint statement focuses more on other “security” issues: health security, supply chain and cyber security.
Has India decided that it still needs to retain strategic autonomy even if it has serious differences with China on its northern borders? And therefore stepped away from Quad as an Asian nation? Or has the US itself downgraded Quad now that Australia has joined its geostrategic game of containing China?
Before the Quad meeting in Washington, the US and UK signed an agreement with Australia to supply eight nuclear submarines – the AUKUS agreement. Earlier, the US had transferred nuclear submarine technology to the UK, and it may have some sub-contracting role here. Nuclear submarines, unlike diesel-powered submarines, are not for defensive purposes. They are for force projection far away from home. Its ability to travel large distances and remain submerged for long periods makes it an effective strike weapon against other countries.
The AUKUS agreement means that Australia is cancelling its earlier French contract to supply 12 diesel-powered submarines. The French are livid that they, one of NATO’s lynchpins, have been treated this way with no consultation by the US or Australia on the cancellation. The US administration has followed it up with “discreet disclosures” to the media and US think-tanks that the agreement to supply nuclear submarines also includes Australia providing naval and air bases to the US. In other words, Australia is joining the US and the UK in a military alliance in the “Indo-Pacific”.
Earlier, President Macron had been fully on board with the US policy of containing China and participated in Freedom of Navigation exercises in the South China Sea. France had even offered its Pacific Island colonies – and yes, France still has colonies – and its navy for the US project of containing China in the Indo-Pacific. France has two sets of island chains in the Pacific Ocean that the United Nations terms as Non-Self-Governing Territories – read colonies – giving France a vast exclusive economic zone, second only to that of the United States. The US considers these islands less strategically valuable than Australia, and therefore its willingness to face France’s anger. In the US world-view, NATO and Quad are both being downgraded for a new military strategy of a naval thrust against China.
Australia has very little manufacturing capacity. If the eight nuclear submarines are to be manufactured partially in Australia, the infrastructure required for manufacturing nuclear submarines and producing/handling of highly enriched uranium that the US submarines use will probably require a minimum time of 20 years. That is why naval and airbases in Australia with the US providing the nuclear submarines and fighter-bomber aircraft either on lease or simply locating them in Australia.
I have argued in these columns that the term Indo-Pacific may make sense to the US, the UK or even Australia, who are essentially maritime nations. The optics of three maritime powers, two of which are settler-colonial, while the other the erstwhile largest colonial power, talking about a rule-based international order does not appeal to most of the world. Oceans are important to maritime powers who have used naval dominance to create colonies. This was the basis of the dominance of British, French and later the US imperial powers. That is why they all have large aircraft carriers: they are naval powers who believe that the gunboat diplomacy through which they built their empires still works. The US has 700-800 military bases spread worldwide; Russia less than 10; and China 3.
Behind the rhetoric of Indo-Pacific and open seas is the US play in South East Asia. Here, the talk of Indo-Pacific has little resonance to most people. Its main interest is in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which was spearheaded by the ASEAN countries. Even with the US and India walking out of the RCEP negotiations, the 15-member trading block is the largest trading block in the world, with 30 per cent of the world’s GDP and population. Two of the Quad partners –Japan and Australia – are in RCEP.
The US strategic vision is to project its maritime power against China and contest for control over even Chinese waters and economic zones. This is the 2018 US Pacific Strategy doctrine that it has itself put forward, which it de-classified recently. The Strategy doctrine states that its naval strategy is to deny China sustained air and sea dominance even inside the first island chain and dominate all domains outside the first island chain. For those interested in how the US views Quad and India’s role in it, this document is a good education.
The US wants to use the disputes that Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia have with China over the boundaries of their respective exclusive economic zones. While some of them may look to the US for support against China, none of these South East Asian countries support the US interpretation of the Freedom of Navigation, under which it carries out its Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPS. As India found to its cost in Lakshadweep, the US definition of Freedom of Navigation does not square with India’s either. For all its talk about rule-based world order, the US has not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) either. So when India and other partners of the US sign on to Freedom of Navigation statements of the US, they are signing onto the US understanding of the freedom of navigation which is at variance with theirs.
The 1973 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) created two classes of countries, ones who would be allowed to a set of technologies that could lead to bomb-grade uranium or plutonium, others who would be denied these technologies. There was, however, a submarine loophole in the NPT and its complementary IAEA Safeguards for the peaceful use of atomic energy. Under the NPT, non-nuclear-weapon-state parties must place all nuclear materials under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, except nuclear materials for non-explosive military purposes. No country till now has utilised this submarine loophole to withdraw weapon-grade uranium from safeguards. If this exception is utilised by Australia, how will the US continue to argue against Iran’s right to enrich uranium, say for nuclear submarines, which is within its right to develop under the NPT?
India was never a signatory to the NPT, and therefore is a different case than Australia’s. If Australia, a signatory, is allowed to use the submarine loophole, what prevents other countries from doing so as well?
Australia did not have to travel this route if it wanted nuclear submarines. The French submarines that they were buying were originally nuclear submarines that used low enriched uranium. It is retrofitting diesel engines that have created delays in their supplies to Australia. It appears that under the current Australian leadership of PM Morrison, Australia wants to flex its muscles in the neighbourhood, therefore tying up with Big Brother, the US.
For the US, if South East Asia is the terrain of struggle against China, Australia is a very useful springboard. It also substantiates what we have been saying all along, Indo-Pacific is only a cover or a geostrategic competition between the US and China over South East Asia. And unfortunately for the US, East Asia and South East Asia have reciprocal economic interests which bring them closer to each other. And Australia, with its brutal settler-colonial past of genocide and neocolonial interventions in South East Asia, is not seen as a natural partner by countries there.
India under Modi seems to have lost the plot completely. Does it want strategic autonomy, as was its policy post-independence? Or does it want to tie itself to a waning imperial power, the United States? The first gave it respect well beyond its economic or military clout. The current path seems more and more a path towards losing its stature as an independent player.