Caught in the cross-currents
Submarines are devices of deception. They’re meant to hide their true positions and quietly torpedo the enemy’s vessels. In the ongoing diplomatic stand-off between the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Australia on the one hand and France on the other over nuclear submarines, they’ve lived up to that reputation of stealth.
But there’s one big twist that India must note. The submarine subterfuge that has left France fuming didn’t target the enemies of the new troika of America, Britain and Australia, dubbed Aukus. It has, instead, struck at historic alliances: Nato and the US-France partnership that has stood the test of time since the American War of Independence.
To be sure, there are elements of the Aukus deal that suit India’s strategic interests well. As a part of the new alliance, the US and the UK will sell Australia nuclear-powered submarines. That represents a definite and deeper commitment from both Washington and London to the security of the Indo-Pacific region, where they — and other countries, including Australia — share India’s worries about China’s increasingly expansionist inclinations.
India isn’t part of any security alliance but has significantly ramped up its multilateral partnerships in a part of the world that New Delhi considers its extended neighbourhood. It has trilaterals with the US and Japan, and separately with Japan and Australia. And then there’s the so-called Quad — a grouping of India, the US, Japan and Australia. Leaders of the four Quad countries will meet at a physical summit for the first time later this week on September 24 in Washington.
New Delhi’s active participation in the Quad has riled Beijing in recent years. China sees the initiative — and other such multilateral platforms — as efforts aimed at containing its rise. The new Aukus alliance could take away some of the heat from the Quad, a scenario that India wouldn’t mind.
So what’s the problem?
India has long seen itself as a central pillar of any security architecture in the region. The Quad reinforced that conviction in South Block. But while India was informed in advance about the formation of the new Aukus alliance, senior officials have confirmed to this writer that New Delhi was not told about the plan to supply Canberra with nuclear submarines.
And frankly, New Delhi can hardly expect any better if the US kept its oldest ally, France, in the dark. The nuclear submarine deal with Australia torpedoed a 2016 deal under which Paris was to supply Canberra with submarines. A seething France has withdrawn its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra and is keeping the US president, Joe Biden, waiting for a phone call from its president, Emmanuel Macron.
The message is clear: to the US game plan in the Indo-Pacific, even close friends like India and old allies like France matter only so much. They’re merely cogs in the wheel of a grand strategy, each serving a purpose, but not worthy of being treated as an equal, trusted partner.
There are other reasons to worry too. The deal with Australia — and the strike against the Paris-Canberra submarine pact — comes at a time when Macron and a few other leaders in the European Union have been arguing for greater strategic freedom from the US. Some experts have suggested that Washington’s move is a response to those voices in Europe.
If that’s the case, what does this mean for India — a country that since independence in 1947 has fiercely guarded its strategic autonomy, refusing to get drawn into the orbit of any major power? That’s an approach that all Indian governments have followed. Is the Biden administration sending a subtle message to India too — that the search for autonomy could carry costs?
Then there’s the confusion that too many cooks breed. When India, Japan, the US and Australia work together in the Quad, what do they additionally gain through sub-groupings like the one between India, the US and Japan, and between India, Japan and Australia? After all, Japan and Australia are treaty partners of the US. India needs to be careful that it ends up with more than just a soup of overlapping trilaterals that could work more effectively if they were consolidated.
And finally, New Delhi must stay cautious so that it doesn’t get caught up in the crossfire emanating from tiffs involving its friends. France is India’s oldest strategic partner, a country that has stood by New Delhi when America, Australia and others wouldn’t. Even more importantly, France has the largest security presence in the Indo-Pacific region of all European nations, with bases in Djibouti and in overseas territories like Mayotte, Reunion and the French Southern and Antarctic Lands.
It makes sense for India to partner closely with France for security in the region. Indeed, it has a trilateral with France and... oops, Australia. What happens to that partnership now? Will France agree to continue with it? Will India need to play peacemaker between France and Australia? We’ll know soon.
Yes, submarines are devices of deception. But perhaps this time, they’ve also helped bring to the surface some of the troubling realities of the crowded rush of global powers into the Indian Ocean. India needs to make sure it isn’t the target of any torpedoes.