Something about the new Australia, UK and US deal suggests it could detract from the value and usefulness of the Quad

The jury in New Delhi is still out on AUKUS, the new trilateral security agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Three months after its announcement, the issue continues to split India’s security experts, with little consensus over whether it benefits New Delhi or is detrimental to Indian interests.

Many believe the pact is useful for India and its Indo Pacific partners. By clearly declaring its intention to deter China, AUKUS, proponents say, expands New Delhi’s options in dealing with Beijing. Moreover, the pact opens up a window of opportunity for more strategic collaboration between India and France.

As some others see it, the continuing turbulence on India’s northern border makes it imperative for New Delhi not to be part of an anti-China alliance. Supporters say AUKUS allows India – a key US partner and a vital Indian Ocean player – the leeway to engage with China at terms acceptable to New Delhi. In a post-pandemic world, Indian policymakers must also prioritise challenges in the non-military domain – vaccine diplomacy, infrastructure building, technology sharing and climate change – without feeling the need to sign up to a China-containment coalition. The agreement allows New Delhi to focus on its developmental agenda, with a degree of assurance that the strategic threat in the Indo-Pacific would be robustly met.

The possibility of Australian submarines in the Indian Ocean isn’t reassuring for India’s security observers.

But sceptics disagree. However noble its intended purpose, AUKUS, they aver, subverts the strategic order in Asia. First, it is baldly provocative to China, which could potentially destabilise the Western Pacific (with inevitable consequences for Indian Ocean states). Second, the pact’s intended aim – to build Australia’s naval muscle ­– does not mitigate India’s strategic challenge in the Himalayas. More importantly, AUKUS is prejudicial to French interests. By alienating Paris, it injects distrust in the Western alliance. That, too, could have unintended consequences.

From a maritime operations perspective, AUKUS gives Indian observers pause. With the Indian navy’s conventional underwater capability fast shrinking, the possibility of Australian submarines in the Indian Ocean isn’t reassuring for India’s security observers. While they are happy for Australia – a Quad member and close partner of India in the Indo-Pacific – to receive nuclear submarine technology from the United States and the United Kingdom, Indian watchers apprehend a crowd of friendly nuclear attack subs in the Eastern Indian Ocean. Increased foreign submarine presence in India’s near-seas would serve only to erode Indian influence and authority in the neighbourhood.

New Delhi is also troubled by the prospect of an AUKUS-generated backlash from China. The agreement could provoke Beijing into expanding military activity in the littorals – not so much in the congested South China Sea, already gridlocked with posturing and counter posturing, but in the Indian Ocean, where China has so far been relatively quiet. The Chinese navy could assume a more adventurous posture in the Eastern Indian Ocean, deploying more warships and submarines. China’s ships may well stay clear of Indian waters, but their mere presence in the littorals is bound to put more pressure on India’s naval leadership. In response, New Delhi might have to deploy Indian warships in the South China Sea, pushing India-China maritime dynamics into a negative spiral.

The possibility of Chinese aggression in the Indian Ocean isn’t merely hypothetical. Spurred by China’s military and non-military activity in the Indian Ocean region, the Indian navy has in recent months announced a plan to develop a fleet of nuclear attack submarines. Tellingly so far, the United States has made no offer of help. The “very rare” nature of AUKUS – as announced by US officials immediately after the unveiling of the pact – is a reiteration of Washington’s stand on the matter: US policymakers do not anticipate the sharing of submarine propulsion technology with any US partners, other than the United Kingdom and Australia.

Something about AUKUS suggests that it could over the long term detract from the value and usefulness of the Quad.

But the implications of AUKUS go far beyond naval operations. By some accounts, the grouping’s ultimate goal is to prevail in the technology competition with China. By pooling resources and integrating defence and industrial supply chains, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom plan to beat China in the race for high-tech supremacy. The expansion of strategic cooperation in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and cyber operations could shift the power balance in the Indo-Pacific in ways regional countries have not accounted for.

All of this would still be acceptable to India if the new arrangement were to complement the Quad. Some believe that it does. Notwithstanding apprehensions over possible delays in the delivery of nuclear submarine technology to Australia, AUKUS, many believe, could be instrumental in deterring Chinese aggression at sea. That in itself should be a positive. Even if it did not deliver fully on its promise, the pact would still bolster the Quad in its search for “open-minded and creative” solutions to regional challenges.

And yet, something about AUKUS suggests that it could over the long term detract from the value and usefulness of the Quad. Since its revival in 2017, the Quad has displayed a certain mystique – the ability, on the one hand, to be a driver of growth and development, and on the other to pose a strategic counter to China. AUKUS, ruefully, has taken some of that aura away. The Quad has now been shown to be a non-military, non-security arrangement. The strategic partnership of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia has seized the initiative.

Even so, Indian officials are being careful in articulating a formal position vis-à-vis AUKUS. For New Delhi, the imperative is to display solidarity with its partners, especially at a time when tensions with China are again on the rise. Yet concerns in India’s security establishment about AUKUS are real. Despite solidarity with Canberra, there is a palpable sense that the new security pact impinges on Indian stakes in the Indian Ocean.