One would have thought the cause of recent rise in diplomatic tension in global politics would have the rapidly deteriorating relations between the United States and China. That, however, has not been the case. Instead, media headlines in the past couple of weeks have been grabbed by a burgeoning internecine strife between members of only one side of dichotomized adversarial line-up, the western alliance. Incendiary remarks have emanated from their capitals. Ambassadors have been recalled home for consultations at shortest possible notice. Celebratory events to mark the halcyon days of past camaraderie, as between the French and the Americans during the eighteenth-century revolution war, have been cancelled. The only perceptible challenge the adversary, the Chinese, seem to be confronted with at this time is how to react, even verbally, to these extraordinarily unforeseen, yet welcome (from their point of view) developments. The rest of the world is witnessing more surprises packed in this game of diplomacy than in a Test match of Cricket.
For President Joe Biden of the United States, misfortunes do not appear to come singly. They began as dribs and drabs and have now become a shower. A natural glad hander, he had everything going for him at the outset. Much of America and the rest of the world had heaved a sigh of relief at the departure of the erratic and unpredictable Mr Donald Trump. The apparently gentler and genial Mr Biden could have chosen to walk away from Trumpian policies and make a fresh start. But he chose not to. The need to unite America required the identification of clear adversary that all Americans could intellectually comprehend. Of the two potential candidates, Russia and China, he opted for China. With some reason he probably believed that an anti-China policy would be more acceptable in bi-partisan terms, and for the US at least more economically rewarding. But in adherence to this belief, he may have become more Catholic than the Pope.
This focus on China required him to keep intact one of Mr Trump’s policy decisions, that is, carrying out the deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and withdrawing military assets from that country to buttress the anti-China stance. But the assets he could evacuate was only personnel, while nearly US $ 80 billion worth of equipment were left behind as windfall for the Taliban. Tactically the withdrawal was a bewildering catastrophe, and even the closest allies, the NATO partners, felt marginalized and miffed. So did a crucial ally, President Ashraf Ghani, who fled with only a single change of clothes. The Kabul government crumbled so swiftly that it even took the Taliban aback. They were forced to enter Kabul earlier than they had planned to be able to restore some order in town and were ironically placed in a situation of cooperating with US and NATO troops to calm the chaos at the Kabul airport. True, few hit bull’s eye with the first arrow. But after twenty years of military presence, the Parthian shaft the Americans fired in their final drone attack was an astonishing error that left ten innocent civilians dead, including children, and an aid worker. The debacle was complete.
The allied governments were mystified. But, since their own withdrawal from Afghanistan was linked to that of the Americans, their domestic public opinion, unsurprisingly turned on them, alleging incompetence, albeit, by association. Two senior Dutch officials, Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag and Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld were forced to resign, accused of mishandling the evacuation. In a Cabinet reshuffle, the British Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson, had to reshuffle his cabinet, demoting Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who was caught so unaware by the rapid developments in Afghanistan that he was vacationing in Crete at that crucial time. No such thing seemed to happen in the government of the central actor in the piece, the United States. Given the nature of American politics, any admission of fault in strategic policy (the commanding General admitted his error in the drone attack that attracted such national and international opprobrium but at no cost to his career, as yet) would bring grist to the Republican mill which Mr Biden can ill afford at this time. So, another tack was attempted. This aimed at marshalling resources for the ultimate confrontation with China in the Pacific rim, also called “Indo-pacific “in the current strategic jargon, the nomenclature partly designed to bring India, with its potentials, into the fold.
There China has been, at an increasing pace, under the aegis of President Xi Jinping, ramping up its capabilities across the broadest spectrum to pick up the gauntlet. Abroad it is weaving scores of countries in all continents into its net of Belt and Road (BRI) initiative which it proclaims as “win-win “arrangements for all sides. It has developed relations with varying degrees of proximity with nations such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, the Central Asian Republics and Cambodia. It has already developed links with the Taliban in Afghanistan. At home it is preparing for what it now perceives as the inevitable de-coupling from the US through its, among others, “dual circulation” policy, reducing export dependency and bolstering consumer demand. It is modernizing all its fighting arms, in particular the navy, and investing heavily in technology including in Artificial Intelligence. Many already see China as poised to supplant the US in global power -ranking, which, however hasty a conclusion, feeds perceptions useful to China. Analysts are already theorizing about the inevitability of the clash between the existing preponderant power and a rising one, and the risks of a Thucydidean miscalculation. Since regional countries are factoring in these elements into their calculations, their policy preferences tend towards conflict avoidance, unless locked into a conflict situation with China, of which there are some.
Australia finds itself among the latter group for a series of diverse reasons. Demographically, culturally and politically, like neighbouring New Zealand, it is an extension of the West in the Pacific. For over a century in every major war it has been aligned to Britain, once viewed with reason as the “mother country” and more recently with the US. In the early 1970s Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and aides like Ambassador Stephen Fitzgerald have sought to inject more “Asian content” into its policies, leading to China eventually becoming its largest trading partner. Another former Prime minister, the Mandarin speaking Mr Kevin Rudd is rated as one of the world’s top China experts. But all this has not precluded the leanings, particularly strategic, towards the US, carried forward by the current Liberal (Conservative) head of government, Prime Minister Scott Morrison. China, ever more powerful now than before, frowns upon these connections, thereby also heightening Australian unease, anxiety, and nervousness.
A vast island, the navy is an existential imperative of Australian’s defence. To strengthen its submarine fleet, therefore, in 2016 Australia signed a deal, worth well over US $ 40 billion at current rates, for France’s Naval Group to build several conventional diesel submarines. As time went on, prices quoted by the French side tended to escalate as did the sense in Canberra that by delivery time, at least a decade for the first platform, the vessels would become obsolete. The timing coincided with Mr Biden’s urge to demonstrate, following the Afghan debacle, some form of foreign policy success. This, he believed, would lie in a major policy thrust to contain China. The US offered Australia the very sensitive technology of nuclear propulsion for submarines, earlier shared only with Britain, and ensured the buyer that much of the building would be undertaken in Adelaide enhancing local employment. For Mr Johnson it was a chance to project a major post-Brexit “Global Britain” role and image, and, in addition, to obtain some lucrative business for companies like Rolls Royce and BAE Systems. American, British, and Australian experts worked out a pact for cooperation that included cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and undersea domains. They then opted for the less complicated but hugely inelegant name of AUKUS for the trio’s deal. This could not be shared with the allies, including France, whose deal with Australia, would now have to be scuppered. This was partly because of the danger of leakage, and partly for fear that if aware, France would do everything possible to torpedo it.
Consequently, the French were incandescent with rage when AUKUS was formally announced. The huge monetary loss was bad enough. But a greater cause for anger was being kept in the dark about the trilateral strategic agreement between France’s allies. It is true that Australian officials have been for some time sharing with the French their concerns that the French submarines would be insufficient to satisfy Australia’s requirements. Mr Morrison has stated that unequivocally, and there is absolutely no reason to doubt him. It is not that the French are denying that. But the real reason for Paris’ gripe was being left out in the cold as Washington, London and Canberra were negotiating the deal without so much as a hint to Paris, a close European ally. Looking daggers in the media, the French Foreign Minister, Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian, called it a “stab in the back”, adding that “this is not something that allies do to each other”! At writing, Mr Biden is reportedly seeking to place a telephone call to President Emmanel Macron of France, doubtless with a view to mollify him, but when that happens it is unlikely to be a breezy conversation. While France recalled its Ambassadors to the US and Australia, it retained its envoy in the United Kingdom, proffering the derisive explanation that it was only because the UK was the “spare tire” in the pact, Mr Le Drian using unusually strong imprecations, accusing the UK of “permanent opportunism”. Laconically, Mr Johnson adumbrated that “the British love of France is ineradicable”, an assertion not necessarily in consonance with historical evidence.
China, as was to be expected slammed AUKUS, its spokesman viewing it as “highly irresponsible” and reflecting “Cold War zero sum” mentality. It would be wise to assume that Beijing is already reconciled to the sharing of all possible capabilities by western allies. It would be prudent to assume that China would be undertaking all appropriate measures to counter such western actions. But it was for Australia at which more specific wrath seemed to be directed. China’s “Global Times” often seen as the official media mouthpiece, said that “Australia had now turned itself into an adversary of China”, adding that, as a warning to any other potentially regional western allies “thus, Australian troops are also most likely to be the first batch of western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea”.
But amidst all these developments, what are the ramifications for global geopolitics? First and foremost, we may be heading for an era of nuclear proliferation, not necessarily of weaponry, but most certainly of technology. AUKUS commits the three western allies, while not breaching any current agreements, to share most sensitive capabilities. China could and would perceive this as an invitation to do the same with countries it has close ties with. This would not only remain confined to the under-sea domain but spread to others like space, electromagnetic and cyber. China would naturally work to enhance interoperability among its strategic partners. Also, to upgrade its own technology to erode the strategic advantages that, say, AUKUS would accord Australia.
Secondly, the increasing plethora of security alliances also mathematically increase the possibilities of war, even between countries not directly related to the conflict. That is because of the mutual commitments such pacts would entail such as in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO). A good historical example would be the First Great War (1914-1918) when respective alliance drew their memberships into a massive conflict. Also, the nature of the composition of alliances would be critically viewed. The British for instance have hailed AUKUS as being an alliance of three English -speaking countries. An unintended consequence of such a perception in the case of some may be to harken back to the days of imperialism and even racism. This would inspire unnecessary negative passions in post-colonial countries many of whom still retain unsavory memories of their colonial past.
Thirdly, as some in the western alliance will coalesce further, others may tend to loosen the existing security ties. Calls for European strategic autonomy will grow. US partnership with France may have been severely damaged. Historically the French have been America’s earliest ally from the time of the American revolution. Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who aided the colonists is still revered in the US. When the American soldiers reached Paris to assist the French during World War 1, they went to his statue in Paris and famously reported: “Lafayette, Nous Voila” (Lafayette, we are here)”. The US and France have sparred before, as during the Iraq invasion, but never like this before. Paris sees this as a supreme breach of trust. Also, must of western Europe, already disillusioned by the Afghan experience, may be viewing AUKUS as unthinking, even uncaring. Allies, formal or otherwise, may also presume that the US views them as belonging to two separate and hierarchical categories: those with whom sensitive technologies can be shared, and others, not.
Finally, in the Pacific region itself, where American presence has been traditionally generally welcome and seen as balancing, sentiments could change if behavior of the Anglo-Saxon trio render conflict and war more likely. For instance, for Indonesia, accretion of sensitive naval power of Australia can be a worry. Indeed, in its reaction to AUKUS Jakarta has said it was “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”. Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry called on Australia to maintain its commitment to regional peace and stability. In a public statement, the Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail, specifically mentioning AUKUS, warned it could “potentially be a catalyst towards a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region”, adding that, as a result, other powers (read China) may be provoked “to act more aggressively, specially within the South China Sea region”. More subtly, when Mr Morrison telephoned him, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore expressed hope that the partnership would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture”. Most importantly a preponderant sentiment in the region was that it was necessary to uphold the principle of preserving the ASEAN region as a “Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality”, in accordance with the commitment of all global players.
The leaders of the world are currently gathered at the United Nations in New York to moot over the problems of the world. To a huge majority of them the principal challenges are the Covid pandemic, its economic impact, and climate change. They are also fully cognizant of the fact that they need to thread the needle carefully as the key State players sail perilously close to the wind. They must, individually and collectively, urge a call for calm, upon the main geopolitical protagonists. For, unrestrained powerplay on the global matrix could, and possibly would, lead to calamitous consequences!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg