Beijing’s comments reflect its real fears, that the Biden administration is hurrying the confrontation with China and “preparations for war that began during President Obama’s time in the form of “pivot to Asia” was expanded on all fronts under the Trump administration
In International Politics, simply put, the term ‘Multilateralism’, is “the coordinated diplomatic interaction between three or more stakeholders, but can be interpreted differently by different stakeholders. Sometimes it is understood as not only a diplomatic approach, but one that is committed to certain principles and set of values. At the very core of multilateralism lies an interdependency that is key to the equilibrium needed to maintain peaceful global governance that promotes collaboration and equity”1.
The two major alliance of the current times— QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) a plurilateral alliance between India, US, Japan and Australia and AUKUS i.e. a security alliance between the countries of Australia, US and UK and can be understood in the above light.
QUAD, which was essentially inactive until 2017, was brought back to life as QUAD 2.0 for a number of whys and wherefores. One of which was that the Donald Trump administration that saw the Indo-Pacific as a crucial theatre of competition with China. AUKUS is a “tri-pact of anglophone members constitute three of the Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Council (FIORC) and two of the QUAD members. Ergo, the AUKUS is now dubbed as ‘the most significant security arrangement between the three nations since World War Two’.2”
Even though AUKUS is not connected with the QUAD, the two converge at the very core—increasing tension in the Indo- Pacific region because of Chinese aggressiveness and muscle-flexing coupled with the use of coercive power to ensure support to its claims in the South China Sea.
While QUAD is broader, AUKUS is more specific in its mandate. As one strategic commentator points out3—the Joint Statement of the QUAD points out the ‘shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific’ and the commitment to ‘strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion’, the main objective of the AUKUS is also the peace and stability of the region.
However, the difference between the two lies in the fact that QUAD is mainly an instrument of dealing with diplomatic and political dimensions involving all the four and there is a possibility of its extension with other powers joining it, the AUKUS is a defence pact.
Despite differing opinions among experts that AUKUS may undermine the QUAD, in effect, AUKUS actually compliments the QUAD by “bringing Britain more closely into the Indo-Pacific; and second, being brazenly militaristic in nature, this trilateral alliance comes with a key feature that enables the US and the UK to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia, helping Canberra possess a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. The AUKUS grants Australia rights to being a member of an exclusive club of only six world powers— the US, UK, France, China, India, and Russia—that are able to counter Beijing’s adventurism in the Indo-Pacific”4.
The dragon has been fuming fire since the QUAD has picked up pace and now the AUKUS grouping. China has been outspoken in its outright disregard for any such alliances and sees them as a direct threat to its own ambitions in the region.
Some of its responses being—in the Global Times5, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party in Beijing has reportedly called the QUAD— a “sinister gang” whose members are “four ward mates with four different diseases” who “will become cannon fodder” if they dare to take on China. One of op-ed of China Daily calls “the Biden administration, for all its claims to be different from its predecessor, seems to have copied one unpleasant mannerism at least and that is how to behave in the region like a street gang boss, amplifying differences and stoking confrontation in a bid to start turf wars”6. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said “the deal was extremely irresponsible and narrow-minded and denounced the outdated Cold War mentality”7. As the case with Global Times, the China Daily too took the opportunity to highlight the United States’ failure when it came to Afghanistan, saying, “To see the consequences of its unruly games, one does not need to look beyond the plight of Afghanistan, a country that was first invaded and then abandoned by the US and its Western allies, including the UK and Australia”8. “The CGTN, an international English-language cable TV news service based in Beijing, also carried a report on the AUKUS alliance, stating that this new pact showed that Europe can’t trust the US”9.
Beijing’s comments reflect its real fears, that the Biden administration is hurrying the confrontation with China and “preparations for war that began during President Obama’s time in the form of “pivot to Asia” was expanded on all fronts under the Trump administration. Biden has maintained all Trump’s hostile anti-China policies, including his punitive trade war measures and economic sanctions”10.
While the QUAD, AUKUS and Washington’s pivot to now deemed as the Indo-Pacific generate much interest and anxiety, however “Balancing China is the challenge confronting the United States, and it has recognised that India is an indispensable part of the answer. Reinventing an old strategic geography by adding “Indo” to “Pacific” and creating a new coalition, the QUAD, were both meant to draw India into a massive enterprise that is likely to occupy the United States’ attention for years, if not decades, to come”11.
As Beijing has ruffled feathers with New Delhi, mounted in recent years, India is more than willing to abandon its old hesitancies of being a part of any anti-China coalition and now work with the United States and its allies. That is the big reason for the QUAD’s current momentum. “India’s presence in the QUAD is the clearest affirmation that the problem in the East is about something else: the Chinese quest for hegemony driven by a massive power imbalance with its Asian neighbours”12.
Although these alliances may seem advantageous, they also pose some pertinent challenges in the times ahead—First, that countries will need to choose between the United States and China; second, that the QUAD will undermine the current regional architecture centered around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); and third, that AUKUS will trigger a new arms race in the region. What we see in the coming times is an accelerating arms race in the Indo-Pacific now that “China finds itself a target of new security arrangements – AUKUS and the QUAD – aimed at containing its power and influence (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute notes a 47 per cent increase in defence spending in the Indo-Pacific in the past decade, led by China and India). This has the makings of a new great game in the region in which rival powers are no longer in the business of pretending things can continue as they are”13.
Saloni Salil, is an independent Geopolitics and Security analyst. She has held honorary positions in various organisations and has a number of published works among her credentials. She has also been associated with Future Directions International, as a Visiting Fellow in the Indo Pacific Research Programme since 2012.