What the secret deal means for all the nations involved
While the world still continues to reverberate from the US’s humiliating withdrawal (aka defeat) from Afghanistan along with its regional and global fallout -- the heat of which has also reached the current UNGA session -- the world’s focus has been shrewdly shifted to a new hotbed in the Pacific and East Asia, potentially with greater alarm and ramification.
The secret deal
It emanates from the signing of a secret agreement between the US, UK, and Australia forming a trilateral security pact and equipping the latter with eight nuclear-powered submarines, terminating an earlier commercial deal reached between the recipient country and France five
years ago, under which France would have supplied 12 diesel-run submarines to Australia by 2036.
France is genuinely infuriated over the scrapping of the $66 billion deal and has, in an unprecedented diplomatic move, recalled its top envoys from Washington and Canberra. However, according to the observers, the emerging security dynamics along with China’s unhinged upward economic and military trajectory was the raison d’etre in sealing the secret deal now known as AUKUS, which far-outweighed the basis of agreement between France and Australia.
There appears to be a reconfiguration of strategic or security alliances, post the two-decade-long American (Nato) war against the ME Muslim countries, which are shaping up, consequent to the shifting of the theatre of conflicts.
The post-WWII world witnessed a bipolar military alliance between the Nato and Warsaw Pact countries led by the US and Soviet Union respectively, both being armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, which in a sense provided a balanced and mutual deterrence in the global order, famously called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
The former Soviet Union’s ill-advised and ambitious invasion of Afghanistan in the late 70s led to its disastrous withdrawal in 1989 after a futile and bloody occupation, triggering its eventual collapse in 1991, followed by the disintegration of the Union as well as the Warsaw Pact itself like a domino effect. The world watched with horror an unprecedented tectonic shift in military power, presenting the US with the unipolar superpower title on a platter.
Major developments in the Middle East
In the meantime, two major developments took place in Afghanistan and in the Middle East. The Afghan Mujahideen, who were trained, financed, and armed by the US to fight the Soviets in a proxy war, turned their guns against their one-time benefactors following the withdrawal of the Soviets.
On the other hand, in August 1990, Iraq, believing that it had the mute acquiescence of the US, committed a blunder invading Kuwait, unbeknownst to it that it was a trap laid for it. Soon the US, knowing well that the wounded, defeated, and disintegrated Russia had neither any wherewithal nor any appetite to challenge it, invaded Iraq, permanently crippling it from posing any threat to its neighbours.
Then came 9/11, like a nightmare shattering the US’s long-held complacency that it was immune from outside attack. George W Bush, then president of the US -- who, it may be recalled, was not elected by the popular vote but was adjudged elected by a controversial Supreme Court ruling -- found it as manna from heaven.
He used the tragedy skillfully to revamp his popular rating and declared a global war against terror, leading the US to a two-decade long war invading and decimating the Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya to Syria to Yemen and a couple of others, killing millions of innocent people -- men, women, children, and old -- the list of mayhem, cruelty, and crimes against humanity can go on endlessly.
Meanwhile in China
While the US was trampling world order and international rules, and reducing the UN to a helpless onlooker, like an unchained beast, China, a historically tortured and humiliated nation that had nothing to do with all this hubris and power play, prudently focused its attention to developing its economy, eradicating poverty, creating prosperity for the people and the country, developing science and technology, and making itself the second largest economy in the world despite being a Third World country only a few decades ago.
At the same time, China also built its military to a position where today it can stand any challenge from any external threat or coercion. With the calculated use of its newfound wealth and soft power, China patiently created its sphere of economic and strategic circles through various concentric groupings and organizations.
China also let it be known that it was not alone in pursuit of its global interests and created an informal strategic alliance with countries like Russia, which by now has regained its lost global relevance, and Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, which are facing identical external threats.
Of late, the US has realized that its sole military and economic supremacy in the world is being eroded gradually and facing considerable challenges from China, which is poised to become a major rival for the US, though it remains far ahead in military power.
Yet, the US’s nervousness is palpable. Besides, as a super military power, it also feels a psychological pressure to demonstrate its strategic outreach and capabilities.
It’s under these compulsions that the US recognized the futility and wastage in getting bogged down in manageable peripheral irritations and pivoted its concentration in the larger canvas having far greater implications.
It has therefore necessitated that the US share its highly secret nuclear technology with Australia, helping it build eight nuclear submarines, within the shortest possible time, effectively thwarting China’s naval dominance in the Pacific and East Asia. The only other country with which the US shared this technology was the UK, back in 1958. A clear manifestation of the seriousness of the AUKUS.
The AUKUS, though appears to be an exclusive entity owing to the structure of the pact, will essentially also involve the other Quad partners as active players buttressing the trilateral agreement. Further, the AUKUS will also serve as an extension of Nato in the Pacific as two of its important members are involved in it.
To me, it doesn’t sound like a strong argument that the AUKUS will sideline the Quad. The Quad -- involving Australia, India, Japan, and the US, and which was formed at the behest of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 -- found new life after a decade of hibernation, after Donald Trump became the US president, with a view to contain China, if necessary by military force, under the rubric of what it called the FOIP (Free and Open Indo Pacific).
The FOIP is unambiguously a security alliance and it has, since 2017, held regular naval exercises called Malabar Naval Exercise. In order to dispel any doubts, President Joe Biden held an in-person meeting with the Quad leaders in the White House, the agenda of which, inter alia, include the FOIP.
As expected, the Chinese government has reacted sharply against the formation of the AUKUS, calling it utterly irresponsible. Whether China will remain restrained in mere statements or try to counter the AUKUS by triggering a fresh arms race is a matter of conjecture.
Implications for the region
As to what implications it will engender for the larger region and in particular the challenges for our region, only time will tell.
For Bangladesh, it certainly is a monumental challenge to frame our foreign policy on this particular issue, bearing in mind our fundamental guiding principles of "Friendship with all and malice to none," non-alignment, and especially the ongoing upward economic trajectory the country is enjoying. Our diplomacy has gained enough maturity over the decades, and I am sure it will rise to the occasion and task.
Ashraf ud Doula is a Former Secretary to the government and has served as Ambassador to a number of countries.