September 26, 2021

All these Military Alliances in Indo-Pacific

R Arun Kumar

THE impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is slowly being felt on geo-politics. NATO allies of the US, mostly from Europe, felt betrayed by the US decision, as they were not consulted. Rubbing salt over these injuries is the announcement of a new defence arrangement between the US, UK and Australia, termed as AUKUS. Coincidentally, within a day of the announcement of the AUKUS, the EU had come out with its own strategic document on the Indo-Pacific. Few days from now, a meeting of the Quad group, consisting of US, Japan, Australia and India, is scheduled in the US. The growth of China as an economic super-power is a major factor for these countries to reconfigure their strategies. The entry of warships of UK, Germany and of course the US in the waters of South China Sea, clearly indicates their designs.

AUKUS is the biggest defence pact between the US, UK and Australia. The joint statement released by the heads of government of these three countries pointed the reason for the formation of the pact as, “to protect shared values and promote security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region”, where, ‘regional security challenges had grown significantly’. As part of this deal, Australia will be provided with nuclear submarines to be stationed in its ports. This deal also involves sharing of cyber capabilities, Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum and other undersea technologies. No second guesses that this deal is aimed at China.

The repercussions of this deal were felt in Europe and among the NATO allies of the US. France feels betrayed, as it was supposed to conclude a submarine deal with Australia. Now this is closed. Angered by these developments, a former French ambassador to the US commented that the ‘world is a jungle’ and France was reminded of this bitter truth due to ‘backstabbing by the US and UK’.

Lamenting that the EU was not even informed about this security arrangement, the EU has announced its ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ on September 16. Stating that the EU intends to ‘increase its engagement with the region to build partnerships that reinforce the rules-based international order’ and address ‘global challenges’ it outlined its objective as to promote ‘democracy, the rule of law and human rights’. The EU justifies its involvement reiterating the economic importance of the region and the trade and economic relations it enjoys with this region’s countries. It relates the ‘increasing competition, tensions and military build-up in the region’ to the ‘security and prosperity of Europe’. It talks about authoritarian regimes and violation of human rights – all aimed at China. It threatens ‘any country’ found ‘violating human rights’ with sanctions.

In order to ‘secure’ Europe, EU wants to increase the naval and military presence of EU member States and also carry out joint military exercises in the region. And this would be carried out under the ostentatious reason of providing security in the Indo-Pacific region. It also seeks to build its capacity against ‘illicit financial flows for terrorism’ from/in the region. Significantly, the EU also talks about its intention of combating ‘information manipulation’ done by State and non-State actors and support ‘independent content for media outlets’. This in plain terms means that the EU will intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign country to wage a propaganda war by promoting ideas and views that conform with its interests. For instance, if people criticise a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed with the EU, the EU will try to suppress such reportage by influencing media outlets. Ironically, this will be carried out in the name of protecting democratic rights in a sovereign country! Incidentally, the EU and India have restarted their negotiations for concluding an FTA and as the initial documents that are circulated in the EU parliament show, they are especially detrimental to the interests of Indian agriculture and farmers.

EU’s decision to deploy its navy in Indo-Pacific, come out of the shadows of the US and carve a separate identity for itself has gained currency in recent times. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her State of the Union address to the European Union parliament on September 14, 2021 stated that “after the Afghan pull-out, the EU needed the ‘political will’ to intervene militarily without US-led NATO”. Reminding members that the time has come for Europe to ‘step up to the next level’, she said, she believed that EU military forces would be ‘part of the solution’. In fact, these ideas of having an exclusive ‘military force’ for Europe and being less dependent on the US military support, have been widely in circulation at least for the last four years.

Emmanuel Macron, president of France is one of the strongest advocates of having a separate military force for Europe. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War, Macron suggested that Europeans cannot be protected without having a ‘true European Army’. This was in 2018. At that time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel too supported this idea and suggested to structure it through a ‘defence cooperation’. Macron further went to state that Europe should not be ‘relying only on the United States’ and in fact be prepared to protect itself from “China, Russia and even the United States of America”. Merkel, echoing similar feelings stated that “times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out” and so Europeans should ‘take their destiny into their own hands’.

It is with this understanding many member States of the European Union signed up to a plan for closer defence co-operation in 2017, called Permanent Structured Military Co-operation (PESCO). This was meant to bring national militaries under a single command at a time of crisis and also boost defence budgets and joint capabilities. At that time, Britain which was part of the European Union did not support this idea and remained out of it. Many of the European States, in main those bordering Russia, were also not warm to these proposals of having a separate European defence force. They still do not want to alienate the US and the NATO.

Proposals to have a joint EU rapid-response force in the 1990s, battle-groups in 2007, were all non-starters because of the reluctance of various States to fund them, apart from their fear of alienating the US and NATO. Their skepticism prevented the suggestions of France and Germany from taking a concrete shape. There is a feeling that the recent proposal of Ursula von der Leyen, too might be another non-starter.

However, there are counter arguments to show that these times are different. The hasty retreat of the US armed forces from Afghanistan without even consulting its European allies showed the self-centred and undependable nature of the US. A reflection of it is found in the inconsistencies of the US foreign policy after Trump had come to power, which are still continuing even after his defeat and Joe Biden assuming the presidency. A realisation is dawning that these inconsistencies are not due to the eccentricities of an individual, but due to the gradual loss of US power, particularly its weakening economy. After Brexit, Britain is now no longer a part of the European grouping, but a competitor. Competition for markets, resources and influence is now waged with Britain too, along with the US, China, Russia and other countries. In this scenario, defending their interests, separate from the aforementioned competitors, became paramount for the EU States, particularly, Germany and France.

The US and EU differ only in degrees of their animosity towards China. EU considers US to be aggressive in dealing with China, while US considers EU to be too soft. Both of them share the view that a growing China is a threat to their hegemony. It is hence clear that the EU too intends to focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific region, along with the US. The US of course is way ahead of the EU and is trying to build various alliances with countries in the region.

The US is justifying its decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by stating that it would free enough resources for it to concentrate on China. Biden stated that he is withdrawing troops to “focus on shoring up America's core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations”. For the US to isolate China, the Indo-Pacific, as the US prefers to call the Asia-Pacific region and mainly the ocean and sea routes surrounding China, have a strategic importance. This understanding drives the US efforts to formalise ‘Quad’ grouping (also called by some as Asian-NATO). The anti-China drive of the US that gathered pace during Trump’s presidency is still continuing. Biden has added his stamp on it by trying to systematise it, through mobilising allies of the US.

The US is moving alone and choosing its allies, as demanded by its interests. Now, the EU, too has joined this race – at times acting in tandem with the US, and at others, as a separate bloc, trying to lure friends into its strategic embrace. Indo-Pacific has become the theatre where all the push and pulls within imperialist countries are being played. All of them are guided by their objective of cornering a major share of trade and in the process, negate the growing influence of China. To further their domination, both the US and EU are militarising the region and threatening peace. Without realising this danger, Indian government is hanging on to the US coat-tails. This has to be fought at all costs.