The AUKUS is expected to strengthen Australia’s naval capabilities by equipping it with nuclear-powered submarines
Two significant developments in 2021 have cast a shadow over India’s evolving strategy towards the Indo-Pacific region and the reliability of the United States (US) in this strategically important theatre. The first is the hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the capture of power by the Taliban. From India’s point of view, the “victory” of the Taliban and Pakistan in Afghanistan has sharply deteriorated the security environment in South Asia and presented a fresh set of challenges.
The second development relates to the unveiling of the new defence partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS). The AUKUS is expected to strengthen Australia’s naval capabilities by equipping it with nuclear-powered submarines. AUKUS entails a long-term commitment and Australia has cancelled the submarine deal negotiated with France, another important Indo-Pacific power, to sign into the AUKUS.
The manner of American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the launch of the AUKUS has been debated across the Indo-Pacific region. Both of these developments are expected to have implications for India’s security and consequently for its Indo-Pacific strategy.
Of these two developments, Afghanistan has had a direct impact on India’s foreign and security policies. India has no option but to mitigate the fallout of American withdrawal from the region. China has managed to position itself in an enviable position whereas the Taliban have reached out to Beijing for support. For India, the China-Pakistan relationship and Pakistan’s active support to anti-India terror groups remain a key challenge in the geopolitics of Afghanistan.
Along with this, India is engaged in a border standoff with China in Ladakh for more than a year now. India has to match the Chinese military deployments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and deploy strategic assets in the region. As a result, continental dimensions of India’s security are likely to consume the energies of India's strategic establishment for the foreseeable future. Will it affect the maritime realm and India’s Indo-Pacific outreach?
Since the unveiling of the AUKUS in September 2021, questions have been raised about what it means for India, what will be the future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) after the AUKUS and should India really invest its energies into the Quad. In the last few years, the Quad is seen as a cornerstone of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Some analysts have even expressed fears that the Quad will end up running out of steam. That India should find ways to expand the menu of its strategic options beyond the Quad.
India’s foreign secretary Harsh Shringla had assured the sceptics that AUKUS will not overshadow the Quad. The Quad and AUKUS are not groupings of similar nature. Shringla added that AUKUS is a security alliance whereas the Quad is a plurilateral club of four maritime democracies that share similar values and vision for the Indo-Pacific region. From the perspective of the Indian establishment, AUKUS will not have any impact on the functioning of the Quad.
The first in-person meeting between the four Quad leaders at the White House, in the wake of the unveiling of AUKUS, was an important marker. It signalled the continued relevance of the Quad for the United States as well as Australia despite the AUKUS. For India and Japan, Quad and the Malabar Naval Exercises, in which all four Quad nations participate, offer much-needed diplomatic room while dealing with the Chinese challenge. The intensive diplomatic engagement between India and the United States since the announcement of AUKUS should assuage the sceptics. Besides, India’s ties with Australia are deepening as well.
So, what does India’s Indo-Pacific Strategy look like after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the AUKUS? First, just like the other three partners, India remains committed to the Quad and has indicated its willingness to expand the agenda of the Quad. The expanded agenda of the Quad from cybersecurity and infrastructure to vaccines and climate change is likely to provide a broad range of issues to synergise strategies and work together. Afghanistan has featured in the Quad joint statement. Therefore, Afghanistan might actually present opportunities for the Quad countries to further strengthen and deepen their diplomatic and security partnerships with each other.
It is imperative to consider Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific together as they remain interconnected challenges in India’s strategic calculus. An expansive agenda may perhaps dilute the military component but as long as each of the four Quad partners continues to build up their military capabilities, it will complement the efforts of the grouping as a whole to manage the rise of Chinese power.
Second, maritime security will remain a central plank of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Despite the developments in Afghanistan, in August, India, which is a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), organized a debate on maritime security. It was the first time that such a debate took place in the UNSC and indicated India’s priorities. The Indian Navy’s expanded scope of activities and engagements from the region between the Suez Canal and Japan also point towards this direction.
There is a school of thought in India that argues for focusing more on the maritime domain precisely because challenges on northern peripheries limit India’s geostrategic space. In the wake of AUKUS, India is deepening its strategic partnership with France including exploring possibilities to acquire advanced French weapons platforms.
The Taliban in Afghanistan and the likely increase in smuggling of drugs will necessitate the growing attention to the issue of maritime security along India’s western coastline in the Arabian Sea. It will have implications for India’s internal as well as coastal security.
And finally, India’s geopolitical position will warrant it to engage with partners in the continental as well as the maritime realm in bilateral, trilateral as well as multilateral formats. India does not have the luxury to choose one over the other. Managing China’s rise in the continental domain is as important as building capabilities to ensure stability in the maritime realm. India’s Indo-Pacific strategy will be defined by these considerations. AUKUS and Afghanistan will not change the broad contours of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
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(The writer is a strategic analyst based in Delhi.)