A trilateral meeting in San Francisco made international news quietly, if that is possible, a few weeks ago. Australia, UK and the US, part of the trilateral group AUKUS, announced a nuclear-powered submarine that the US will help Australia deploy in the Pacific. The news died as quietly as it broke. Not too many seemed to have taken note of it, even though it is about a nuclear-powered sub.
AUKUS is yet another of America’s new inventions to rally support among countries in the Asia-Pacific region in order to contain China, the others being IPEF and the Quad. I have already written about what I think of IPEF, and it just reinforces what I am about to write about AUKUS. The idea of AUKUS as an alliance between three countries, Australia, UK and US to counter China’s influence in the South China Sea and the Pacific, is itself strange. What do the three countries have in common, besides a shared history very long ago, and beliefs in Western democratic values?
More importantly, what do they have in common in the Pacific part of the world? A common desire to contain China, of course, but I am not sure they are fully united even in that cause. Because the anti-China rhetoric always begins in Washington DC, and even though the American and the Chinese economies are interconnected in many ways, there is also always sparring between them as is expected between two rival superpowers. Only this time it’s not about the spreading of Communist ideology, which was the main driving force behind America’s involvement in this region in the not-so-distant past.
I am not sure either Australia or the UK can afford to take an overt anti-China stance. In 2016, Australia sent around a third of its total exports to China and yet was rash, in my view, in toeing Trump’s line when he began his trade war with the Middle Kingdom. The UK depends a lot on Chinese investment in the country and on China’s market for its goods and services. In fact, it is UK’s participation in AUKUS that is the most curious: it has even less to do with the Pacific region than America or Australia, which certainly have larger security and military interests in this part of the world. Ah, but then again, these countries are in AUKUS not just to contain China, but for the sakes of their billion-dollar defence industries. A nuclear-energy powered submarine is supposed to be big shit. And America’s military-industrial complex still rules.
AUKUS looks to me like a military and strategic alliance between the three countries, with two of them – no prizes for guessing which – gaining the most out of it. IPEF was supposed to be an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, but as I have said earlier, without a trade agreement it cannot generate enough interest in the region. I happened to read an article from CSIS (Centre for Strategic and International Studies) on an Indo-Pacific Infrastructure Partnership, and I am not sure if it is meant to be part of IPEF or Biden’s Build Back Better Infrastructure Plan, but it seems lacking any sense or direction and is therefore likely to be a non-starter. Then, we have the Quad, a grouping of four countries including mine, India, along with US, Japan, and Australia. These are certainly all interested parties when it comes to trade, peace and security in the region. However, reading about the Quad made me wonder again if it is clear on its objectives and its raison d’etre.
I didn’t know that Quad dates back to 2007 when the four countries first began discussions, although it took till 2017 for the Trump regime, surprisingly, to reactivate it. Finally, though, it seems to have really come into its own during the Covid pandemic. According to this Brookings podcast, it was the Indian prime minister, Modi who mooted the idea of the Quad standing for something more substantive than just being anti-China. Wise decision, I’d have to say. Especially since all the four countries have plenty to do with China. Under this new-found vision, the Quad decided to make India the hub of Covid vaccine production – as India already leads the world in vaccines – with the other countries financing it, as well as helping with distribution, though most of it was meant to be supplied through COVAX, the international coalition for equitable distribution of vaccines. I remember reading about this decision in March 2021, but how much of this pooled vaccine production actually took place is anybody’s guess, since the media hasn’t bothered to report on it.
Meanwhile Quad member countries continue to hold joint military drills, every now and then in the Indo-Pacific region, including in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Let us be clear-eyed about it then – the military and defence interests are never far away from any other well-meaning and common goals that countries in the region may profess to pursue. And here, it is the Western powers that have the most to gain, from selling their defence equipment to developing and emerging economies in Asia-Pacific. India, of course, is trying to develop and grow its own defence industry in collaboration with western countries and their technology, but again it’s only in the nascent stages. And I was shocked to learn recently, that India had overtaken Saudi Arabia as the world largest importer of arms.
Thinking about all these developments and also reading Brookings’ glowing piece on an emerging alliance at sea, I wonder if we aren’t very far from another NATO-like organization being born in the Pacific region. All recent developments seem to point in this direction. The fact that we have a super-power to try and control in the region, with China replacing the Soviet Union. The fact that the economic centre of gravity has been in this part of the world since the start of this century, and therefore western powers too have economic and strategic interests in this region. The fact that western countries have to grow their military industrial complex means that there is a large market for defence equipment and technology in this region. And if they can psyche all small ASEAN countries that China will gobble them one day, we could see the world’s most dynamic economic region also bristling with arms.
Not a world I welcome, but we must be able to imagine it. And more importantly, take precautionary steps now, so that we are not pushed headlong into a world born of America’s extreme paranoia at losing its numero uno position. So that so many smaller countries – each a growing, vibrant and dynamic economy – are not swept by this fear of a country most of us actually fail to comprehend. A Brookings article on how ASEAN sees the Quad made me feel a little reassured that these countries are not fully sold on the anti-China rhetoric yet, even though they too must fear living in its large shadow. They do a lot of business with China and have grown on the basis of it, as well as being connected to global supply chains.
I have been arguing for the world to engage more with China and make it a more responsible power on the international stage. This comes not from isolating it, or sanctioning it, but from greater engagement, dialogue and application of pressure when required. If we consider China’s growth, it is mainly economic, with its growing trade footprint which covers almost the entire world. Its military and diplomatic power come from its economic power, even as the economy has slowed to what it believes is a more sustainable rate of growth. Takes the pressure off global commodity prices too, so the entire world can grow at a reasonable pace. The world is right to be concerned about China’s terms of engagement with many poor and developing countries, especially as the creditor behind many large infrastructure projects and must find ways around this.
Consider China’s role in mediating a restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, unthinkable until now. One doesn’t know how long it will last, but imagine the world of good it can do to the West Asia region, especially if it ultimately leads to a cessation of hostilities in Yemen, a country war-torn and pestilence-ravaged besides being famine-ridden, according to the UN. Years of proxy wars can end, bringing peace and nation-building in the region.
China is also often accused of trying to internationalise its currency, but no one is helping its cause more than the US. Years of using the dollar as the weapon with which to sanction every enemy country also hurts poor and developing countries who cannot afford to import or pay for traded goods in any other currency. This practice of avoiding payments in US dollar has gained momentum ever since the Ukraine crisis, when western powers imposed stringent sanctions on Russian oil and gas companies and other exporters. This article in FT warned of recent developments in this sphere, and it is of great significance if true. China has also been encouraging and aiding the growth of more development and infrastructure banks that can lend to developing and emerging economies. If this sounds like an alternative to the global multinational institutions under the Washington Consensus, can you blame them?
China is doing all it can to help the world grow economically, but where it needs to pull greater weight is in its diplomatic relations and in fostering greater understanding between countries. No one doubts China’s huge economic influence, but fear and lack of trust and understanding still come in the way of it being considered a great power. It must demonstrate to its smaller neighbours first that it means them no harm and will work with them on the basis of mutual respect and understanding.
That would obviate the need for such a large American or western military presence in the waters of the Indo-Pacific, and would also help China’s and the region’s cause. If you need to wrap your head around even the idea of a NATO-like Pacific Treaty Organisation in the future, take a look at a Pacific-centred world map. Most of us have never seen one, having been raised on the Anglo-Saxon conception of the world.
Suddenly, the prospect of America and China and the entire region bristling with missiles aimed at each other is even closer than you think. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The animated owl gif that forms the featured image and title of the Owleye column is by animatedimages.org and I am thankful to them.