The tectonic change in the Indo-Pacific region is the most important geopolitical event of 2021. The countries along its shores account for roughly two-thirds of the world’s population. They produce the largest share of global gross domestic product, possess the most powerful military forces, and depend on the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
It is also a potential strategic minefield with numerous unresolved conflicts. It extends from the Korean Peninsula in the northeast, across the Straits of Taiwan and the disputed “Asian Mediterranean” of the South China Sea, and through the pirate-infested Straits of Malacca to the Indian subcontinent, where India has a tense relationship with its old foe Pakistan to the west and fights occasional border skirmishes with the rising Chinese giant to the north.
The rise of China, the corresponding shift in the balance of global power, and the desire of some of China’s neighbors to contain her assertiveness, is producing a new and perilous geostrategic mix. Most recently it was marked by the reconsolidation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad. It came into being in 2007, but remained dormant for over a decade. The new spirit of Quad 2.0 was symbolized by the Sept. 24 meeting at the White House between President Biden and three prime ministers: Scott Morrison of Australia, Narendra Modi of India, and Yoshihide Suga of Japan. It was the first in-person leaders’ summit of the Quad, six months after they held a virtual meeting.
The strategic rationale of the Quad was clear from Prime Minister Suga’s remark at the Washington summit that the four nations shared “unwavering commitment to the common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” This remark suggested that the Quad embodies what is at geopolitical stake here. “Free and open” was a clear reference to China, particularly to the four leaders’ opposition to Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory.
Another, equally significant move, but with more immediate strategic consequences, was Australia’s surprise decision, announced mid-September, that it would cancel its program to purchase diesel-powered submarines from France, in a deal worth the equivalent of $66 billion. Canberra announced that it would work instead with the United States and Britain to develop eight nuclear-powered submarines.
The announcement caused shock and anger in France. “It’s really a stab in the back,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the France Info radio network. The controversy may have adverse repercussions for the internal cohesion of NATO, which in any event would be a good thing, and it may poison relations between Great Britain and its former EU partners for years to come. It is nevertheless evident that the Biden administration was prepared to take the risk of a transatlantic rift, because it believes that the Australian deal’s benefits will outweigh the costs.
That much seemed clear when President Biden and Prime Ministers Morrison and Boris Johnson of Britain held a joint video call on Sept. 16 to announce the founding of a new regional tripartite security pact known as AUKUS, which is—even more explicitly than the Quad—an effort to counter and contain China. In addition to allowing Australia to use secret nuclear technology provided by the U.S., the new AUKUS Pact leaves no doubt who is the potential enemy prompting its creation. The three leaders referred repeatedly to regional security concerns which they said had “grown significantly.”
In addition to the submarine deal, Biden, Johnson, and Morrison agreed to develop joint capabilities in undersea and artificial intelligence, which will play an-ever-increasing role in future cyber conflicts. AUKUS does not have the character of a full-fledged military alliance as yet, but it certainly may become one.
China promptly condemned AUKUS as “extremely irresponsible.” Its foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said AUKUS “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race.” Beijing has reason for concern. Australia had long resisted pressure from Washington to be more supportive of U.S. containment efforts, and Chinese analysts had expected that enormous trade and economic interests would help prevail in keeping Canberra cautious. This was not to be. In addition to geopolitical issues and regional security concerns, their relations took a sharp downward turn after Australia backed a global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
The security calculus may shift significantly. Australia will be one of only six countries in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines. Stealthy, almost immune to attack from the surface and capable of launching missiles which can reach all parts of China, even without nuclear weapons on board they have an impressive deterrent capacity. On the downside for Australia’s long-term security, China undoubtedly will consider including Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth in its list of potential intercontinental ballistic missile targets, if its rivalries with the United States ever escalate into open war. In addition, Australia may become a hostage to Washington’s attitude to Taiwan, which is receiving American arms and special forces training, much to Beijing’s ire.
Here lies the crux of the matter: is anyone actually safer with the new security arrangement in place? It appears to be a clear negative-sum game, while notably excluding American long-term partners in the region.
Particularly irritating for the Chinese—and potentially not only to them—is the presence of Great Britain in the new pact. China remembers that its “century of humiliation” started with British gunships destroying its fleet of armed junks in 1839, during the First Opium War. Sixty years have passed since Britain adopted its “East of Suez” policy of colonial and imperial disengagement. It no longer has bases in Singapore or Hong Kong. What, then, is the purpose of Britain joining an arrangement in which two of the actors, Australia and America, at least have a valid claim to an active role in the region they inhabit? It seems as absurd as China joining an alliance with Mexico or Egypt.
In much of Asia, this tripartite agreement will be seen as an attempt by three white nations (most Asians still perceive them as such), one of them a former colonial power and another the present would-be global hegemon, to join forces in trying to guide the destinies of a huge region west of the Midway Islands in which they constitute a small minority. It is noteworthy in this context that AUKUS may prompt negative reactions even from allies: to wit, South Korea sought the Trump administration’s help in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines but were rebuffed. Was South Korea considered less reliable than Australia, and why exactly? It is an even bet the Chinese propaganda will use some version of this argument.
As for the American interest, in early October a group of former U.S. officials urged President Biden to commit the United States to designing future submarines to be powered by low enriched uranium (LEU), a material capable of providing naval propulsion without the risks of it being used to build a nuclear bomb. The AUKUS agreement has stirred concerns from both seasoned experts and world leaders, such as the former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, that LEU design would be a far safer option for Australia and her neighbors.
China will not sit still. It will continue and likely intensify its military buildup, regardless of its current economic problems. It is also developing effective weapons to deter and counter U.S. naval might. It may try to counter AUKUS with an alliance of its own, possibly including North Korea, Burma, and Pakistan. Most significantly it is likely to seek closer relations with Russia, possibly with a view to upgrading their current partnership to an alliance.
In the end we may see a confrontation between the English-speaking thalassocracy and the gigantic Eurasian telurocratic heartland. That would confirm the claims of geopolitical theorists from Thucydides to our own time that land power and sea power are preordained to tension and conflict.
It could also destroy much of the world. Nothing in human affairs is fatally preordained because God has given us free will. America’s war with China would be a monstrous, mutually destructive absurdity. With AUKUS in place, that possibility is a few percentage points more likely than a year ago.