The Aukus Pact and Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean

Stability and security on the Indian Ocean waterways have been for 70 years the mainstay for international development and regional prosperity. Nobody stands to gain either from a new Cold War


By Jan Arden

Canberra strategists have long harboured fears of being swamped under by “invading hordes”, a hang-over from the Second World War exposure, but even nowadays many of these fears remain associated with its vast expanses holding a limited population size and its remoteness from traditional allies and friends in the US or Europe, making reliable partnerships towards its national security always problematic. With a natural geography that extends from the Pacific coast with its major cities and states to Western Australia on the Indian Ocean side, it is obviously a crucial player in any Indo-Pacific strategy that has been the strategic security priority of successive US administrations since President Obama.

As a small island state, we certainly have little or no influence on the geo-political issues affecting Australia, its allies and its own pivotal security concerns or their shifts, but our services are surely keeping intelligent track of such developments involving France, the US, the UK and Australia, all with legitimate Indian Ocean interests and the growing behemoth China as it tries to project overseas its economic, military and naval major power status. Stability and security on the Indian Ocean waterways have been for 70 years the mainstay for international development and regional prosperity, including that of China, although the latter is further afield but still relies on secure passageways for its vast fossil fuel and mineral requirements from Africa and the Middle East. Nobody stands to gain either from a new Cold War or disruptive and aggressive behaviours that could jeopardize that stability even if the race for raw materials and energy heats up over future decades.

Australia had in the nineties enjoyed a rather brisk trade relationship with China, over its western mining and quarrying industries, exporting coal for “dirty” power stations, coke and iron ore so essential for China’s vast number of steel mills, together with liquefied natural gas and a variety of other agricultural and sea foods. In fact, Australia became one of the few countries to have a healthy trade surplus with the People’s Republic, a rare feat indicating both Australia’s vulnerability to a trade war with China and the latter’s own dependence on such critical imports from down under. However, the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing’s policy of strategic power projection and the US strategic refocus on China as its major security concern, if not threat, have considerably jeopardized that cozy relationship leading to the brutal realignments implicit since last month.

Beijing has been particularly nervous about demands from the WHO or some major countries for an independent inquiry into the real causes of the pandemic that emanated from Wuhan and ravaged livelihoods and national economies the world over. It has successfully resisted any access to controlled data or research personnel at the Wuhan virology labs, and even threatened those small and middle countries that supported such an inquiry.

Australia was targeted in what looked like an effort to make an example of the costs of not toeing Beijing demands: tariff restrictions and trade barriers to imports were slapped on a variety of Australian producers who were hard hit but eventually found alternative outlets. However, in that no-win trade war, China may sooner or later realize that it is far too dependent on Australian coal, coke, LNG and iron ore to maintain such a stance without costs to its own industries, as the recent blackouts and power shortages inside China demonstrate.

Meantime, the costs of all those vital ingredients for international development have scaled up, sometimes considerably. The more immediate counter-productive impact of Beijing’s trade war and Aussie bullying attempt was to throw the latter into the arms of the hastily announced triangular AUKUS pact that cements US strategic realignment, with UK seeking a post-Brexit Indo-pacific role and Australia, whose national security apprehensions and anxieties had been unnecessarily raised to mild fever levels. Officially the pact is not against any particular country, but Beijing knew its strategic significance by the immediate hostile reactions of its foreign policy diplomats.

According to a BBC report of 16th September, “the (AUKUS) agreement involves the sharing of information and technology in a number of areas including intelligence and quantum technology as well as the acquisition of cruise missiles. But the nuclear submarines are key. They are to be built in Adelaide in South Australia and will involve the US and the UK providing consultation on technology for their production.” It was undoubtedly a major shift in Australia’s policy and national security as the Covid-19 saga and the consequent trade war bullying by Beijing strategists had come at such heavy costs.

The turn-around was so epic that Australia had ditched its traditional resistance to any nuclear industry, civil or military or naval vessels and even, in the process, ditched the deal for some 12 diesel-powered submarines to be delivered by France, another Western ally with strong presence in both parts of the Indo-Pacific. As it turned out from later reports, that French deal had been the subject of numerous rumblings of cost-overruns and constant delays from the Aussie side, which the French may have dismissed with relative insensitivity and its unilateral cancellation by the Australian was all the easier.

France may eventually be roped in or assuaged in the AUKUS build-up and consolidation process, but undoubtedly, the shift to nuclear fuelled submarines and the associated national security perspectives made the pact irresistible to concerned Canberra strategists. It is noteworthy that aside from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, only India has successfully developed an indigenous capacity for nuclear-powered reactors and submarines. President Biden allowed 18 months to teams from the three nations to work out the details but it would be the first time the US and UK are willing to take the big step of exporting extremely sensitive and sophisticated nuclear technology to a non-nuclear-powered nation.

The US has invested heavily on the Pacific side of its Indo-Pacific strategic refocus, mostly to counter China’s assertive military and naval presence in the South China seas. From Japan to South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand, but this new strategic development which impacts both Western Australia and France, gets closer to our traditionally safe and secure Indian Ocean waterways. Obviously, we should all be happier if it improves that state of international security and the rule of law, but we cannot bury our heads in the sands or ignore the current and foreseeable realities of the world order.

Australia, India, the Gulf states and South Africa constitute the corner points of a strategic quadrangle in the Indian Ocean where our maritime jurisdiction and outer islands lie, remote from our intrinsic abilities to either use or exploit them to the benefit of locals or the Mauritian population without extensive investments in their infrastructure, ports, airstrips, energy, transport and naval surveillance facilities. It stands to reason that in funding the massive costs in Agalega, India hopes to secure a naval surveillance outfit but the latter should be a bonus to our common interests for greater peace, stability and security in the northern sea routes bordering our maritime economic zone.


* Published in print edition on 5 October 2021

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