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Decoding AUKUS

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Several Indian officials are wary about this deal as there is apprehension that it could eventually lead to a rush of nuclear attack submarines in the Eastern Indian Ocean, eroding India’s regional pre-eminence.

By ACHYUT NATH JHA


AUKUS is a new trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US. Last month, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the US President Joe Biden announced this deal among the three countries to bolster the longstanding ties among the three. Australia has a long history of defense cooperation with both the countries. To Biden, this is “a historic step to deepen and formalize cooperation among all three of our nations because we all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term.” 

After a hasty Afghan withdrawal that raised credibility questions on America’s power, tackling China’s rise is vital to America’s interests because an increasingly powerful China could challenge the US’s global pre-eminence. China has already established a domineering status in the Indo-Pacific. After completing the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration did not waste any time to announce the AUKUS — it’s most ambitious new alliance.

Thus, the agreement for the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines by Australia can be seen in the context of increasing tension in the region arising from the Chinese aggressiveness and the use of coercive power to its claims in the South China Sea. As was expected, Beijing described the new alliance as an “extremely irresponsible” threat to regional stability, questioning Australia's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and warning the Western allies that they risked “shooting themselves in the foot”. 

Scuttling a multibillion-dollar French submarine contract 

However, its significance lies not only because it involves the transfer of nuclear sub-marine technology to Australia but also it entails the cancellation of an ambitious multi-billion dollar project by France to manufacture conventional submarines for Australia. In 2016, Australia agreed to spend US$ 66 billion to build a dozen French-designed submarines. Experts say that the deal was a critical part of France’s struggle to maintain an indigenous naval industry, and a key component of its Indo-Pacific vision.

The declaration for AUKUS infuriated France. Understandably, France is angry because it was kept in the dark about the discussions surrounding the new pact. Paris recalled its Ambassadors to the US and Australia in protest over Biden's decision to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, accusing Canberra of “backstabbing” and betrayal. France described the withdrawal of the ambassadors for the first time in the history of relations with the countries as a “very symbolic” act that aimed “to show how unhappy we are and that there is a serious crisis between us”.

When Australian and French Ministers met less than a month ago, French officials said there had been no talk of cancelling the deal. The two sides had even issued a joint statement indicating the continuation of the submarine programme. It seems, Australia had been secretly negotiating a deal with the UK and the US. 

Although India may look like a bystander in the AUKUS, observers in India argue that the agreement evokes mixed feelings. Australia, a partner in the Quad (of India, the US, Japan and Australia), receiving top quality nuclear submarine technology bolsters China deterrence in the India-Pacific. But there is no mistaking a sense of sympathy with France — India’s foremost partner in the Indian Ocean. There is a common refrain that France should have been taken into confidence and this could have prevented an unseemly spat between all big players in the Indo-Pacific region. 

However, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed that the trilateral AUKUS security alliance complements partnerships like Quad and there was a “very warm embrace” of the deal by India and Japan as both the countries totally understood and supported what it was seeking to achieve. “The manufacturing capabilities that exist within India, combined with the resource strengths of Australia in this field, provide a natural partnership,” he said.

For those who are skeptical about Quad, this is a sign of what the future might hold for India. They are of the view that if Australia and the US could ditch France, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partner, what is to prevent them from doing the same with lesser allies like India. Several Indian officials are also wary about this deal as there is apprehension that it could eventually lead to a rush of nuclear attack submarines in the Eastern Indian Ocean, eroding India’s regional pre-eminence. 

In the past, an Indian plan to develop a fleet of nuclear attack submarines has elicited no offer of help from the US that does not share its prized nuclear submarine technology with even its closest allies; all except Australia, evidently. Washington’s willingness to help Canberra build SSNs raises the possibility that Australia could deploy nuclear submarines in the Eastern Indian Ocean well before India positions its own. The Indian Navy, the principal security provider in the Eastern Indian Ocean, is not building submarines at a pace commensurate with needs.

Will India benefit? 

Meanwhile, Indian officials are not comfortable with the prospect of friendly SSNs in India’s backyard even as the nation shared concerns over China’s growing submarine presence in the region. Also the AUKUS deal has taken the focus away from the Quad. Despite the US grandstanding, there is no denying a sense of wariness in New Delhi. The agreement suggests preferential treatment on the part of Washington for a close Anglo-alliance partner. That leads many in Delhi to wonder why the US should make an allowance for one Quad partner and not another.

India has rarely received any submarine technology from the US. Instead, it has relied on Russia for nuclear submarine technology, including in the construction of the reactor of India’s first SSBN/submersible ship ballistic missile nuclear (Arihant) and in the acquisition (on lease) of a nuclear attack submarine. Today, India’s indigenous SSN programme requires a nuclear reactor more powerful than the one installed in the Arihant (a non-warfighting platform). 

After the announcement of Quad, some in India were hopeful that the US would consider providing the Indian Navy with nuclear submarine propulsion technology. The clarification by Washington that the deal with Australia is a “one-off” puts paid to Indian expectations. There is now speculation that Delhi might consider seeking French help with nuclear submarines. There is a view that New Delhi must seize the opportunity to push France to transfer its nuclear propulsion technology. 

India, some say, should accept French assistance with building an SSN reactor. For the moment, however, India is being careful in its official response to AUKUS. After all, India cannot be seen to be taking sides in a feud among friends. That is why, days after the deal was announced, India decided not to officially respond to the proclamation of a new security alliance on the Indo-Pacific, which included the transfer of nuclear technology.

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