Of opportunities and renewed divisions: AUKUS, India and the EU

A European Indo-Pacific strategy that widens options for the regional actors is welcomed by New Delhi. The same can be said of AUKUS though explicit expressions have not been made. There are, however, concerns about the prospect of a rupture within the West and its impact on the structuring of a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. Prof C Raja Mohan, Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, elaborates in this interview with FES Asia.

How does AUKUS impact the security framework and balance in the Indo-Pacific region?

The triangular pact between Australia, United Kingdom and the United States on assisting Canberra in building nuclear-powered submarines and constructing a broader partnership in advanced technologies is undoubtedly an important turn in the evolution of the Indo-Pacific security architecture. It is not that AUKUS is about creating a new set of allies. The three of them are members of the Five-Eyes alliance on intelligence sharing. Australia is a treaty ally of the United States under the ANZUS pact. Queen Elizabeth is still Australia's head of state. And the three of them are part of the cultural community described as the 'Anglosphere'.

What is new is a higher level of US security commitment to Australia marked by the transfer of ultra-sensitive nuclear technology and cooperation in underwater warfare, cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. It is also about the deeper integration of Canberra into the US military efforts to balance the new dominant power of the region—China. The agreement lends some substance to the idea of Global Britain reclaiming a security role in the Indo-Pacific. Above all, it is a decisive Australian counter to China’s concerted push over the last two years. For long a major champion of a close partnership with China, Australia now sees balancing against Chinese power as a critical national security objective.  


Where does AUKUS leave Europe with its recently published Indo-Pacific strategy?

The AUKUS agreement on helping Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines involved Canberra's cancellation of a prior 'deal of the century'—worth nearly 50 billion Euros—with Paris on building 12 French submarines in Australia. The surprise announcement of the AUKUS in mid-September with little advance notice to Paris has inevitably generated unprecedented political outrage in France. At stake for Paris was a lot more than a lucrative contract and the breach of political trust. It was about the sudden breakdown of a critical pillar in its Indo-Pacific strategy. President Emmanuel Macron had chosen to pursue an ambitious Indo-Pacific strategy in partnership with Australia. He was also nudging other European powers and the EU to take greater interest in the newly constructed geography in the east.

The AUKUS decision overshadowed the unveiling of the EU's Indo-Pacific strategy in more ways than one. Paris would like to see the AUKUS as a setback not just for France but for Europe as a whole; however, it is not clear how deeply that sentiment is shared in the rest of Europe. That in turn is also related to the continuing lack of strategic interest in Europe about the Indo-Pacific. Any collective European Indo-Pacific strategy to the region is welcome for it widens the options for the regional actors in Asia. But it is by no means clear if Europe is ready to cope with the rapid churn in the Indo-Pacific waters marked by the AUKUS decision or if EU's struggle to catch up in the east will endure. 


What is the dominant perspective from India and how do key stakeholders view the development?

Although Delhi did not make any official statement either welcoming AUKUS or expressing reservations, it is quite clear that it has no quarrel with the decision. The establishment view in Delhi is that AUKUS will help strengthen deterrence against China's maritime assertiveness and naval power projection. And Delhi is not complaining for being excluded from AUKUS. Given India's own growing number of security challenges with China across a broad range of domains, any counter-balance put forward by others is welcome in Delhi.

Some analysts in India have viewed AUKUS as reducing the salience of the Quad. In fact, the opposite might be true. Delhi has consistently claimed that the Quad is not a military alliance. It is quite comfortable with the Quad taking up larger issues of public goods in the Indo-Pacific and developing political, economic and technological coordination between its four member states.

India, however, is deeply distressed by the prospect of a rupture within the West triggered by the AUKUS and its impact on the structuring of a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. Delhi believes France and Europe have a critical role in the Indo-Pacific. It would like to see an early resolution of the dispute between France and the AUKUS states. It would want to contribute in any way it can to facilitate that resolution.


What are your expectations for Germany’s future foreign and defence policy in the region?

Under Chancellor Merkel, Delhi has been concerned about the mercantilist strains in German policy towards Asia, its deep reliance on the Chinese market, and a reluctance to explicitly confront the challenges that Beijing's policies present to Asia and the world. As part of its multipolar vision for the world, Delhi would like to see Germany play a larger role in Asia and globally, commensurate with its natural strengths. But Delhi is acutely aware of the complex political dynamic in Germany and Europe that seems to keep the Berlin Republic a reluctant great power. While Delhi welcomes Germany's Indo-Pacific guidelines, it notes the many ambiguities within it. Delhi, like the rest of the world, has its fingers crossed on the kind of policies post-Merkel Berlin will arrive at. As part of its growing outreach to Europe, Delhi will be ready to expand the strategic partnership with Berlin.


Professor C. Raja Mohan is the Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and a Senior Advisor to the FES Asia Strategic Foresight Group. 

About this series:

The publication of the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy coincided with the announcement of AUKUS, the new security partnership between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, creating a flurry of geopolitical waves across the region and beyond. In a series of short interviews, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) in Asia brings you insights and analyses from thought leaders to put the complex strategic implications of these developments into perspective. Our experts also share their expectations for Germany’s future foreign and defence policy after the recent elections.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

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