AUKUS Alliance – How (Not) to Win Friends

Published in Hindustan Times on September 25, 2021

Last week witnessed the aukward birth of a new security alliance – AUKUS –  bringing together Australia, United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), coupled with a deal involving US and UK building eight nuclear attack submarines for Australia. The announcement was guaranteed to create waves in the Indo-Pacific but the fall out of Australia cancelling the five-year old deal with France for a dozen diesel powered attack submarines created bigger waves across the Atlantic.

The objective of AUKUS is “to deal with rapidly evolving threats” and it envisages closer intelligence sharing and cooperation in areas of AI, cyber warfare and quantum computing. The three are already part of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network, together with Canada and New Zealand. Up to this point, it would have been seen as an attempt to shore up an Anglo-Saxon grouping in the Indo-Pacific, attracting dismissive commentary from Beijing and mild speculation about how AUKUS would engage with the Quad. It is the abrupt cancelling of the submarine deal that has shocked and angered France.

There is more than just the Euros 31 billion at stake. Both Australia and France saw it then as a long-term investment and recognition of shared interests in the region. It is true that there was some unhappiness about growing costs and time delays. The hard fact is that in last five years Australia’s threat perceptions about China have radically changed. Relations have nosedived with Australia curbing Chinese influence activities and cutting out Huawei and China has retaliated with significant sanctions on Australian imports.

Yet the reason that France reacted angrily and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described it “a stab in the back” is because Prime Minister Scott Morrison had visited Paris in June. The outcome was a highly publicised Vision Statement, a long-term strategy for enhancing partnership through the Australia-France Initiative (AFiniti). It was followed by the inaugural session of the 2+2 Strategic Dialogue between the Foreign and Defence Ministers on 29-30 August. For Le-Drian, it was a blow because he had negotiated and concluded the deal in 2016 as Defence Minister during the Hollande period.

In 2015, Australia had specifically sought diesel-electric boats. France outbid competition from Germany and Japan with the Barracuda nuclear attack submarine, modified into a conventionally powered Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A design. An unwritten understanding was that if the nuclear-power option was to be explored, it would be available. Former Australian PM Tony Abbott has been urging a switch since 2017. In 2016, Australia concluded that US would not share nuclear propulsion technology. USA has shared it only with UK but that relationship is different as the US even supplies UK the Trident SLBMs.

In a biting comment about the US, Le Drian complained that “this brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision looks very much like what Mr Trump used to do, Allies don’t do this to each other, it’s rather insufferable”. France has recalled its ambassadors from US and Australia for ‘consultations’ to convey its displeasure. Asked about UK, he dismissively said that it was just “the third wheel” and UK’s “opportunism had been a characteristic trait”.

The reactions in the region have been along predictable lines. China has called it “irresponsible” and warned that it can “exacerbate an arms race”. Japan and Taiwan have welcomed the submarine deal while South Korea has been muted. Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced concerns.

With the Quad summit taking place in Washington, Foreign Secretary Shringla distanced the Quad – “a plurilateral grouping of four countries that have a shared vision of their attributes and values” from AUKUS – “a security alliance between three countries”, adding that “from our perspective, it is neither relevant to the Quad nor will it have any impact on its functioning”.

Following a telephone conversation between Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron, both sides have tried to put a lid on the issue; both leaders will meet next month and the French ambassador will return to Washington. However, the French will recalibrate its ties with the Anglosphere. Unlike UK, France has always seen itself as an independent global player and preferred greater autonomy while being pragmatic about the US lead. This attribute has been a key factor underlying its close strategic partnership with India that dates back to 1998.

India’s nuclear submarine programme (ATV) began in the 1980s but progress has been slow. That is why India has been leasing Russian nuclear attack submarines (INS Chakra I and II) since the 1980s and Chakra III is due in 2025. India’s programme switched after 1998 to the ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) class with Arihant deployed, and Arighat now on trials. It will move in tandem with development of longer range SLBMs, K-5 and K-6 with 5000 kms and 6000 kms range respectively.

The shortfall is in achieving the target of 24 submarines, 18 diesel-electric and six nuclear-powered, originally set out in 1999. Six conventional boats are being built under Project 75; six more conventional vessels were cleared by Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) earlier this this year under Project 75 I with deployments scheduled for 2030s.

The Navy has agreed to give up the third aircraft carrier in order to fast-track the six nuclear attack submarines project. Now that US has breached the taboo regarding nuclear propulsion and cleared the way, the time has come for India and France to set a new milestone for strengthening their strategic partnership. As French strategist Bruno Tertrais explained, “Trump didn’t care about allies; Biden does, but perhaps not all of them equally”.

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