Henry Kissinger’s quote on “friends, enemies and interests”, albeit paraphrased from British statesman Lord Palmerston speech on March 1, 1848, “We have not eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow”, is a stark reminder of realism in international affairs, which is most certainly relevant today as it was 2400 years ago during the times of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War.
A few months ago, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom formed a new strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific – AUKUS, in their pursuit to balance hegemonic China.
So is AUKUS good for India? The short answer is ‘yes’; AUKUS presents no RUCKUS for India, only opportunities.
First, AUKUS opens strategic space, and sturdies New Delhi’s strategic autonomy to pursue its interests in a post-AUKUS world. Second, it allows India to build on a strategy of ‘distraction’, both in peace and crisis, by encouraging the United States and Australia to remain militarily engaged in Western and Southern Pacific, and Japan to contain China in the East China Sea. The intent being to prevent the ‘eye of Sauron’ (China) from focusing solely on the Indian Ocean. Finally, AUKUS offers leverage to India’s nuclear submarine programme, by opening up the global market for transfer of sensitive military technology for building its fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). Let us examine each of these three aspects in some detail.
The ongoing Chinese aggression across the Himalayan borders probably has a loud and clear message for India – resign to the continental theory of security in Asia and Beijing’s hegemony as a great-power neighbour. Some might argue that given its power deficit, India by itself cannot balance against China and, therefore, may wish to align with like-minded partners with converging interests in the region.
Strategic autonomy, however, allows India to secure its vital national interests in an unbalanced world order by freeing itself from alliance commitments. New Delhi could thus gain economic benefits from the European Union (EU), energy security from Saudi Arabia and Iran, infrastructural partnership with Japan and Australia (read QUAD), military hardware from France and Russia, and niche technologies from the United States. AUKUS in many ways then comes as a relief for New Delhi; as now it does not have to take sides, between say the US or France in its diplomatic or military engagements. New Delhi can be at ease and revel in the challenges the new alliance of AUKUS creates for Beijing.
Strategy of Distraction
In the Mahabharata, the Kauravas executed a distraction to weaken the strength of the Pandavas: by attempting to drown Bheema, and then by trying to burn the five brothers in a lacquer house (Lakshgriha), and finally by enticing them to play a rigged game of dice. Strategic distraction, then, is an effective strategy in long-term competitions, probably a high-stakes game that demands patience and discipline. For India, there is no better strategic distraction in its pursuit to emerge as the ‘preferred security partner’ in the Indian Ocean Region than that created by AUKUS.
The Chinese leadership will now require to recalibrate its options for naval posturing in the Indo-Pacific: splitting units between the East China Sea (read Japan/Senkaku), South China Sea/Western Pacific Ocean (read US/Freedom of Navigation Operations), and the Indian Ocean (read India/energy security quandary). Joint application of force dispersed in time and space, between like-minded partners, will certainly blunt PLA Navy’s numerical superiority in terms of number of grey hull, over any of its likely adversaries.
Nuclear Submarine Programme
For all the euphoria around the momentous growth in the India-US strategic partnership, Washington has not (yet) agreed to share sensitive technology for New Delhi’s indigenous nuclear submarine programme. On the one hand, India has successfully completed its nuclear triad by operationalising its nuclear-powered ballistic missile carrying submarines (SSBNs). On the other hand, India’s plan to leapfrog its indigenous SSN programme (nuclear powered) has not progressed as desired. Russia and France are the only two countries which are offering nuclear propulsion technology to India. Under these circumstances, while the US may not part with nuclear submarine technology to India, AUKUS strengthens India’s negotiating position with the other two nations, be it for the French Barracuda SSNs, or the Russian Yasen-class SSNs. Said simply, AUKUS has induced competition in the market from a new vendor (read Washington) who has both the niche technology and the strategic interest to aid India. This provides India with an ocean of opportunities in its bargaining position with other stakeholders.
Back to the question then…
AUKUS most certainly ushers the best of the days for India and its partners in the Indo-Pacific, and probably the worst of the days for China’s strategic leadership. The alliance between the three Anglo-Saxon powers is an excellent example of interacting political, geographic, social and cultural factors that will eventually contribute to balance Beijing’s hegemony in Asia. For India, the new grouping is a win-win situation in pursuit of its long-term national interests.
Aditya Raj Kaul is Contributing Editor with more than a decade-long experience in covering Conflict, Foreign Policy and Internal Security.
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