The 76th session of the UN General Assembly last month, convened in the absence of one of the most important world leaders. While his presence was much anticipated, Mr Emmanuel Macron, the French President chose to send the Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to represent the country at the world’s biggest diplomacy gathering. Where Paris has denied such claims, many are seeing Macron’s absence as a protest against Australia’s withdrawal from a $90 billion submarine deal that it had previously signed with France.
While France has dubbed this move “a stab in the back”, it seems like, far from being a stab, Australia’s redirection from France towards its allies, the US and UK, is a harbinger of the bigger tensions that have been recently brewing in the Indo-Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific region, besides being studded by a vast economic potential also carries immense geographical significance as major economies like China, the United States, and Japan lie in the region. It harbours some of the most populous countries of the world including India and China, making the region a host to more than half of the world’s population. In addition, it is estimated that almost half of the global economic output is now rooted in the region. Not only this, the Indo Pacific contains numerous choke points that are pertinent to international trade and economics. To add to its significance, the region is abundant in resources including water, energy, and land. So much so that it would not be an exaggeration to deem the region the golden sparrow of the 21st century.
Just as important as the Indo-Pacific is for the worldwide economy, it has always shown to simmer friction among the neighbouring nations, and out of all the belligerency surrounding the region, two nations have come out as conspicuous rivals; the US and China.
What the US is so wary of is perhaps the fact that a lead in the Indo-Pacific may usher China into an era of total global dominance and, consequently, spell an end to the US’ economic supremacy.
AUKUS, an acronym for Australia, the UK, and the US is a new hard power alliance that was signed on September 15th, 2021, between the aforementioned countries against the Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific. Strangely, the acronym hints at the UKUSA, an intelligence alliance that was signed during the cold-war era to contain the Russian influence 75 years ago and one of the most important documents of the time. It is also not a coincidence that Beijing has also accused the AUKUS nations of having a “cold war mentality.” While AUKUS surely has colonial and cold war undertones, unlike UKUSA, it has a much wider outreach, covering areas like artificial intelligence (AI), cyber technology as well as undersea and military capabilities.
The reason why the US and UK want Australia as a base to confront the Chinese factor is perhaps due to its well correlated geographic location. Australia is known as the three-ocean nation with the Indian Ocean in the West, the Pacific Ocean in the North-East, and the Antarctic Ocean in the South. A militarily well-equipped Australia could not only avert the Chinese threat but also pave the way for the creation of a stronghold of the West in the Indo-Pacific.
The Achilles heel of China with regards to AUKUS, however, is the swift acceptance of the pact by regional nations like Taiwan, Singapore and Japan. Hence, the biggest challenge for China right now is gaining regional support. But the response of the regional nations has been rather oxymoronic. In the wake of the AUKUS pact, Taiwan has extended its support and called for more muscular ties with the Western democracies. The UK and Australia have also appreciated Taiwan’s participation. Singapore, a country that has previously maintained a balanced position between the US and China, has now shown a tilt toward the former, hoping that AUKUS would “complement the regional architecture.” Japan on the other hand is already a member of the Quad; a security alliance signed between Australia, the US, Japan, and India and has readily welcomed AUKUS to strengthen regional security.
Whether or not the agreement will be instrumental in curbing the Chinese ascendancy is a concern of the future but AUKUS will have implications for the nations involved and the world. China will face a strong resistance in the Indo-Pacific, by an alliance that has support from a considerable number of regional nations. Meanwhile the US will be more focused on the Asian region in the aftermath of the Afghan withdrawal and the UK will be sure of still having the US support and being a key US ally in the post-Brexit scenario. For the world however, the Indo-Pacific rim will either prove to be an economic powerhouse in the future or a military flashpoint.