On September 15, just nine days before he was scheduled to host Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the premiers of Australia and Japan for the Quad summit, United States (US) President Joe Biden announced the formation of a new multilateral security alliance. AUKUS has more or less the same mission as the Quad, which is containing China, even though both groups don’t advertise that as the raison d’etre for their existence.
The new security pact caused consternation in several capitals. Many European Union (EU) member-states were furious. France was angry because the new security pact killed a defence deal worth tens of billions of dollars to sell conventional submarines to Australia. China denounced the new alliance as “extremely irresponsible”. This was understandable because AUKUS has been the most muscular American reaction to the growing Chinese military presence in the Indo-Pacific so far.
The reaction in New Delhi was muted. Even though India did not react negatively, many close to the Indian defence establishment complained that the country was blindsided by the way in which the US went about creating the new alliance. A key complaint in India was that by forming the trilateral alliance, the US had diluted Quad. Some also did not appreciate the timing, just days before the summit.
Despite knowing that AUKUS would ruffle some feathers, the Biden administration proceeded with the new alliance. This speaks volumes of the importance the Biden administration gives to countering Beijing’s belligerence in the Indo-Pacific.
Now that AUKUS is a reality, there are two key questions. One: Will it affect India-US relations? No, it won’t. The trajectory of the India-US relationship is not going to change. Bilateral ties have many dimensions, regional security being just one of them. Since the end of the Cold War, India and the US have cooperated on a broad range of areas, from trade and commerce to climate and energy. One can reasonably say that their partnership in all these and other areas will continue to grow.
Even though the two countries have cooperated very closely in defence, they have never been part of a military pact. Many in Washington point out that it is India that does not want a military alliance. This might be due to India’s reluctance to position itself as a military rival to China. Despite seeing China as a strategic rival — and notwithstanding a series of Chinese incursions into Indian territory in recent years — successive Indian governments, including the current one, have taken great pains to maintain ties with Beijing. That China, along with the US, is one of India’s top two trading partners shows the delicate balance New Delhi has to maintain between its strategic goals and commercial interests. India’s continued reliance on Russia for weapons is another reason why Delhi isn’t keen on an alliance. India has maintained all along that it does not want to put all its eggs in one basket when it comes to buying weapons for its armed forces.
Second: Will AUKUS impact Quad? Yes, it will. Quad will remain a non-military group, in which the four member-nations will cooperate on a number of key regional and global issues. The breadth of Quad’s agenda at the leaders’ summit on September 24 gives a sense of the ambitious role the four nations envision for the organisation. There will be more than enough for the Quad to do as this budding alliance moves forward.
AUKUS takes the security and military issue off of the Quad table. That is a good thing because India did not want such an arrangement with the US, or for that matter, with any country. And, the US did not want such an arrangement either.
The US-India relationship remains steady and focused and where its leaders want it to be at this point in time with each other and in Quad. There was a little churn over AUKUS but it is time to set the noise aside and get to work on issues that really matter.