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The Australia-UK-US security pact — Aukus — has been greeted with rage in China and France. But more significant than the flamboyant anger in Beijing and Paris are the countries that are quietly applauding the agreement.
The many Indo-Pacific nations that are worried by China’s increasing belligerence look to America, not France, to balance Chinese power. Japan and India, the two largest economies in the region outside China, have welcomed Aukus. Later this week, the White House will host a summit meeting of the leaders of the Quad — the US, India, Japan and Australia. Week by week, the US is visibly strengthening its network of security relationships across the Indo-Pacific.
The positive reaction in the region will matter much more in Washington than anger in Paris — unwelcome though that is. Containing China’s power and ambitions is now the major strategic priority of the US, a commitment that spans the Biden and Trump administrations. A blow-up with France is seen as a price worth paying for the strengthening of alliances in Asia. A hardening of Britain’s previously ambivalent posture towards China is also welcome in Washington and balances the damage with France.
Antoine Bondaz, a security analyst (once dubbed a “crazed hyena” by the Chinese government) writes that for China, the pact between Washington, Canberra and London is “the realisation of a longstanding fear: the multilateralisation of American alliances in the region. Today, it’s Australia and the United Kingdom. Tomorrow, maybe Japan will join.”
Japan’s foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, was certainly quick to welcome Aukus. The Times of India noted the overlapping membership of the Quad and Aukus and suggested that “in future, the two could merge.” Raja Mohan, an Indian security analyst, argues that for Delhi, the Aukus is welcome for a number of reasons — including the signal it sends about America’s willingness to transfer key military technologies, such as nuclear propulsion.
India and Japan were not the only two regional powers to respond positively to the Aukus. Singapore, which has always carefully balanced its relations with the US and China, welcomed the agreement. In Canada, where an election is taking place, the leaders of both the conservative and leftwing opposition criticised the Trudeau government for not yet being involved in the pact.
The strengthening of collective security arrangements in Asia is ultimately aimed at deterring Chinese power, much as Nato deters Russia in Europe. The Indo-Pacific alliance structure is unlikely to mirror Nato precisely. Rather than a single alliance, we are witnessing a meshing and enhancement of existing ties creating a network of powers committed to preventing the region falling under Beijing’s domination.
The potential membership of that network can be discerned by the countries that have recently undertaken naval exercises with the US and Australia. They include the UK, Japan, Canada, South Korea and India. If and when relations with Paris are repaired, the French may rejoin.
The significance of this co-operation goes well beyond naval exercises and submarine sales. The three countries involved in Aukus will work together on strategic technologies, such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence. India and Japan also have much to contribute in those areas.
China denounces all these moves as provocative. But Beijing’s actions in the region have provoked the efforts to balance its power.
For Australia, China’s imposition of trade sanctions, after Canberra called for an international inquiry into Covid-19, was a wake-up call. So were China’s 14 fourteen demands for changes in Australian policy. For India, the turning point was the military clashes in the Himalayas last summer. Japan, which has a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea, is also increasingly being harried by Beijing’s military.
China’s decision to build military bases across the South China Sea has alarmed regional powers such as Vietnam and the Philippines. In July, Vietnam hosted Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary. South Korea, another US treaty ally, has not forgotten the economic pressure from Beijing after Seoul agreed to host a US anti-missile shield.
All of these Indo-Pacific nations know that China has built up its military faster than any other country in the world over the past generation. And they are all concerned by Beijing’s threats to invade Taiwan.
Why has China made these diplomatic errors? It may be that it placed too much faith in economic power. The fact that China is the most important trading partner for Japan, South Korea and Australia gives the Chinese an important lever. But heavy-handed pressure from Beijing has often backfired.
The failure of the Chinese strategy so far does not mean that America’s Asian alliance-building will necessarily succeed. Pulling together a complex group of allies is not easy, as the current backlash from Paris demonstrates.
The attempt to contain Chinese power will also heighten tensions with Beijing. But the alternative would be to accept uncomplainingly China’s efforts to dominate the Indo-Pacific. The US and its allies have decided to draw a line.
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