India’s AUKUS Conundrum: Security Perspectives

 By Rahul Jaybhay
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The AUKUS deal unveiled between the US, Australia, and the UK represents a new trilateral security partnership in the Indo-Pacific region. It involves the joint development of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia to enhance “interoperability” and “mutual benefit”, [i] which indicates an attempt to cement the “rules-based international order”, challenged by authoritarian powers like China.[ii] Broadly, the pact is formed to signal Beijing to get its practices in line with the expectation of the international community and soften its aggressiveness, which in the foreseeable future will be dealt less with diplomatic warnings and more with hard power.

The international system is undergoing profound shifts, wherein states’ relative capabilities vis-à-vis each other is in constant flux. Post-cold war period, US unipolarity dominated, whereby there was no peer state that could match Washington’s economic and military capabilities. However, the structural shift (US decline[iii] and China’s rise) in the international system post-2008 financial crisis prompted states in the region, particularly New Delhi, to respond cautiously.[iv] China’s surge forced the Indian strategic community to re-assess their strategic calculus vis-a-vis Beijing. This has become more prominent after the two militaries engaged in the confrontation in June 2020. Such hostility has undone decades of efforts to stabilize relations between the two[v], compromising initiatives undertaken to ensure peace in borders areas like agreements signed in 1993[vi] and 2005[vii]. Concurrently, Beijing’s open aggression has pushed New Delhi to cadge for its security with states like the US, Japan, and Australia, and has even made India to shed its labelling of “reluctant member” in Quadrilateral Dialogue (QUAD) to become an active member.[viii] Nevertheless, New Delhi’s response is more nuanced and still indirect towards China.

To ease such troubles, America’s re-engagement by announcing nuclear-powered submarines’ transfer to Canberra is a welcome step, as it would act as a deterrent against Beijing’s antagonism.[ix] While, such an approach is best in assuring allies about Washington’s seriousness in tackling Beijing; US re-engagement has trade-offs which on the surface level, increases security by intertwining it closely to its allies and friends, but beneath it lays the realm of insecurity, which will be visible in the upcoming future. Transferring nuclear-enriched uranium to Canberra increases the chances of Beijing conceiving it as an attempt to proliferate nuclear technology and subsequently diverting atomic material to fuel nuclear warheads[x]. Such logic is convincing but necessarily flawed. Washington is transferring nuclear reactor core to Australia in sealed containers, wherein chances of leakages are small, and any breach carries the risk of exposing oneself to radioactive nuclear substances.[xi]

Nevertheless, Beijing’s misperception and beliefs will urge it to take the worst into account.[xii] Having the leverage to manipulate Canberra’s politics through its bargaining power, Beijing might perceive its coercing capabilities declining. Such possibility is enough incentive for Beijing to consider transferring nuclear materials or technologies to its partners.[xiii] Such nuclearization will hamper New Delhi’s security, as those transfers may enhance Pakistan’s nuclear stockpiles, which can be strategically used against New Delhi. History informs such speculation of nuclear proliferation. As demonstrated by Matthew Kroenig[xiv], states are more likely to proliferate “nuclear assistance”[xv] to states, with whom they share a common threat.

Further, as forming military partnerships elicits significant absolute gains (enhanced security against a common challenger- Beijing) but results in relative losses within the partnerships. The US transferring submarine capabilities will equip Canberra with essential deterrent capabilities, which may contest New Delhi’s pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean region[xvi], though New Delhi’s economic weight is enough to dodge such speculative concerns. Since India’s threat convergences with others, though not in all aspects, it has made cooperation possible to tackle the adventurism of Beijing, for instance, the QUAD and the AUKUS in succession. Nevertheless, in future, the states will be apprehensive about each other’s intentions[xvii], whether Beijing’s threat stays or disappears. New Delhi does not have the option to focus only on one peril since there can be multiple real and potential challengers in the future.[xviii] For instance, when Britain started declining at the end of the Second World War, concerned about the “dynamic imperialism[xix]” of the potential power of the US, where it shared such worry with the Soviet Union, both decided to form “Anglo-Soviet Condominium”. This shows that, from a realpolitik perspective, states always see other counterparts as challengers.

Moreover, New Delhi must be aware of the possible repercussions of military partnerships. The sagacity of partners to use partnerships to equip themselves and enhance their power by counting on other states can be a source of distress. States can self-strengthen[xx] themselves using such collaboration – which the AUKUS intends to do – at the expense of others. Likewise, military partnerships accrue collective benefits but also have the potential to encourage partner states to become rivals in the future. Also, New Delhi does not prefer to get entangled with Beijing in minor skirmishes. Further, Washington’s unclear commitment to the Indian cause further undermines New Delhi’s trust in translating partnerships into alliances. Such conditions, along with legacy of non-alignment which more recently transpired as “strategic autonomy”[xxi], colours India’s approach to not commit diligently to any partnership, even if warranted.

Washington’s policies, though intended to secure its pre-eminence and well-being of New Delhi, could be a source of concern for India. As a rising aspirational power, New Delhi is trying to simultaneously secure its today and tomorrow.[xxii] It wants to prolong the inevitability of conflict with Beijing, however, in response to the US’ rebalancing; China might want to engage the partner countries in continued skirmishes, India being one of them. To substantiate, New Delhi’s recent defence ties with Washington accrued major defence purchases. Special concessions were offered to elevate India’s position to “Strategic Trade Authorization” tier 1 status.[xxiii] India became the first non-treaty state to be provided with MTCR category 1 – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.[xxiv] Thus, growing defence relations between the two states unsettles Beijing.

 To conclude, the Indian strategic community’s thinking revolves around maintaining “strategic ambiguity,” wherein remaining uncertain is the best bet for the evolving future threats. If Beijing’s threat transpires into frequent territorial aggression, then New Delhi always has the fallback option of seeking the US security umbrella. Until then, maintaining ambiguity will enhance New Delhi’s security by engaging friends in the region without committing to their self-strengthening goals, which in the future could challenge India’s strategic vision. This also signals Beijing of India’s flippancy in containing it. Moreover, by maintaining a partnership with the US, short of formal alliances, New Delhi opts to aptly utilize Washington, whose primary motive remains countering China in the region.[xxv] Leveraging Washington’s vulnerability, New Delhi can get the required military power it needs to balance China and future incoming threats. Further, by not committing to alliances, India maintains its strategic autonomy by sending signals to Washington that India’s aspiration for rising power must be recognized and acknowledged. Alliance obligation obstructs one’s margin for expansion in strategic interest, and New Delhi knows this. It is in India’s interest to “tame,” not “contain” the dragon. To put it explicitly, it would be in India’s interest to buy time and let Washington and Beijing decline, opening space for India to pursue its global ambition if any.

EndNotes:

[i]“Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS”, Briefing Room, The White House. Available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/15/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus/

[ii]Stephen Walt, “China wants a rules-based order, too”, Foreign Policy, 31 March 2021. Available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/31/china-wants-a-rules-based-international-order-too/; accessed on 06 November 2021.

[iii]Joshua ItzkowitzShifrinson and Michael Beckley, “Debating China’s rise and US decline”, International Security, Winter 2012/2013. Available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/41804177; accessed on April 2020. Relatively, China is growing much faster and in future could overtake the absolute size of US economy. Some like Graham Allison claims this could happen soon by 2040.

[iv]Tanvi Madan, “Not your Mother’s Cold War: India’s option in US China Competition”, The Washington Quarterly, 11 December 2020. Available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0163660X.2020.1850418?journalCode=rwaq20; accessed on 11 October 2021.

[v]ZorawarDaulet Singh, Power Shift: India China Relation in Multipolar World, Pan Macmillan. Available at https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/zorawar-daulet-singh/powershift/9789389109733; accessed on 10 October 2021.

[vi] Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas signed on 7th September 1993. Available at – https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/17963/IndiaChina+Agreement+on+the+Establishment+of+a+Working+Mechanism+for+Consultation+and+Coordination+on+IndiaChina+Border+Affairs; accessed on 06th November 2021.

[vii]Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question.Available at – https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/6534/Agreement+between+the+Government+of+the+Republic+of+India+and+the+Government+of+the+Peoples+Republic+of+China+on+the+Political+Parameters+and+Guiding+Principles+for+the+Settlement+of+the+IndiaChina+Boundary+Question; accessed on 06th November 2021.

[viii] IID Explainer, “India sheds QUAD reluctance; has logistic pacts with all members”, India Defense Dialogue; 10 November 2021. Available at https://www.indiadefencedialogue.com/2020/09/13/india-sheds-quad-reluctance-has-logistics-pact-with-all-members/; accessed on 10 November 2021.

[ix]Rajesh Rajagopalan, “Quad Tent Just got bigger with AUKUS”, The Print, 20 September 2021. Available at https://theprint.in/opinion/quad-tent-just-got-bigger-with-aukus-chinas-aggressive-behaviour-will-be-under-watch/735973/; accessed on 17 October 2021.

[x]Manpreet Sethi, “AUKUS from the India’s Perspective”, APLN, 29 September 2021. Available at https://apln.network/projects/aukus/aukus-from-an-indian-perspective; accessed on 14 October 2021.

[xi] Caitlin Talmadge, “Don’t Sink the Nuclear Submarine Deal”, Foreign Affairs, 27 September 2021. Available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-09-27/dont-sink-nuclear-submarine-deal; accessed on 12 October 2021.

[xii]Robert Jervis, “War and Misperception”, Journal of Inter-disciplinary History, 5 March 2015. Available at https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8348J74; accessed on 21 October 2021.

[xiii]“AUKUS from India’s Perspective”.

[xiv]Matthew Kroenig, “Exporting the Bomb: Why States provide sensitive nuclear assistance”, American Political Science Review, February 2009. Available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/27798489?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents; accessed on 01 November 2021.

[xv] Nuclear assistance includes transfer of sensitive nuclear material and technologies to the recipient states.

[xvi]Abhijit Singh, “India is not the bystander in the AUKUS saga”, The Hindu, 24 September 2021. Available at https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/india-is-not-a-bystander-in-the-aukus-saga/article36659188.ece; accessed on 02 October 2021.

[xvii]Charles Glaser, Rational Theory of International Politics, Princeton University Press. Available at https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691143729/rational-theory-of-international-politics

[xviii]Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, Addison Wesley.

[xix] Dynamic imperialism means perceived concern of both powers that Washington will undermine their political powers by sneaking into the continent. Their want for preservation of authority, which was declining w.r.t to Washington, propelled such thinking among their policymakers.

[xx] Twitter Share, ZorawarDaulet Singh. Available at https://twitter.com/Z_DauletSingh/status/1451574077450117130?s=20

[xxi] Sunil Khilani et al, Non-Alignment 2.0, Penguin India. Available at https://penguin.co.in/book/nonalignment-2-0/; accessed on 05 November 2021.

[xxii]Theory of International Politics

[xxiii]Means license free access to US military technologies under Dept of Commerce. Available at https://www.state.gov/u-s-security-cooperation-with-india/; Accessed on 07 November 2021.

[xxiv]“US Security Cooperation with India”, Bureau of Political-Military, US Department of State. Available at https://www.state.gov/u-s-security-cooperation-with-india/; accessed on 07 November 2021.

[xxv]“Neo-primacy and pitfalls of US strategy towards China”.