The new Australia-United Kingdom-United States security pact, now famous by its acronym of Aukus, is yet another sign of the Anglo-Saxon world’s increasing headache over China’s growing might in the Indo-Pacific. Under the pact, the UK and the US will help Australia procure nuclear-powered submarines. The three countries will also drastically increase their military and security cooperation.
Separately, shortly after the announcement of Aukus, the heads of the four countries—Australia, India, Japan, and the US—under the strategic Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, met in the White House and recommitted to “…promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”
Though China was not mentioned on either occasion, it was the elephant in the room. Australia took the lead in Aukus formation as it worried that China’s recent activism in the Indo-Pacific was getting out of hand. Australia ditched an earlier agreement to buy French submarines for $90 billion in favor of the American nuclear-powered kind. The old French subs, the Australian strategic community had come to believe, would no longer meet their country’s changing needs.
Yet the most remarkable development over the past few years is India’s change of heart in working with Western and pro-Western allies. Until recently, the Indian strategic community hesitated to align with the Westerners, particularly the US. One, it feared losing its traditional hegemony in South Asia if the American role in the region increased. Two, Indian thinkers understood that however complex India-China ties may become, as two big neighboring nuclear and economic powers, they had to cooperate. By the same logic, the Indians couldn’t be seen as bidding for the Americans in the region.
But recent border tensions with China seem to have convinced the Indians that only by working with their Western allies can they repel China’s steadily building military pressure—with the tightening China-Pakistan strategic embrace only adding to their urgency. There is also a feeling that Beijing misunderstood India’s accommodating stance as its weakness and hence a clear message needs to be sent. For all these reasons, the Indians may agree to a modus vivendi in South Asia whereby they accept more American involvement here if the Yanks in return agree not to cross certain red lines they draw.
For Nepal, this could translate into more nudges from the south to green-light American projects, the MCC Compact most important among them. (Despite noncommittal words from the Chinese envoy in Kathmandu, Chinese hostility to the MCC Compact is becoming hard to hide as well.) Concomitantly, it would entail India leaning on its traditional constituencies in Nepal to check China’s ‘grand designs’. The government in Kathmandu will more and more be asked to pick sides between China and anti-China forces.
Chinese state media has designated Deuba “pro-India”. The Chinese will feel vindicated after his government’s latest decision to investigate ‘disputes’ on the Nepal-China border. The traditionally pro-Western Deuba also wants to push the MCC Compact through, but he simply doesn’t have the numbers in parliament and such a move could fracture the ruling alliance. Nepali politics, traditionally so reliant on its two giant neighbors, will be liable to even more outside influence in the days ahead. Good luck with the success of the ‘amity with all, enmity with none’ formula!