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What AUKUS Might Mean for the QUAD

Nishtha Sharma

In September 2021, the Quad reached another milestone through holding its first in-person leaders’ summit in Washington. While conversations with high-level government officials across Washington, Canberra, Tokyo, and New Delhi have been underway for a couple of years, an in-person meeting of the nations’ leaders signalled a sense of urgency in entrenching the Quad as a coalition of four democracies with strategic interests in the Indo- Pacific.

The in-person leaders’ meeting came off the back of a recently announced AUKUS partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The trilateral partnership aims to deepen “integration in defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains”, with a particular emphasis on cyber capabilities. As part of this aim, AUKUS will assist Australia in obtaining nuclear-powered submarines whilst also upholding Australia’s international obligations and commitment to non-proliferation and atomic energy safeguards. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was also quick to clarify that “Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability”.

The partnership is explicit in its focus on cooperation in the Indo-Pacific which raises questions about what AUKUS might mean for the Quad. However, despite concerns about any negative fallouts, AUKUS may actually work to complement the strategic priorities of the Quad. Ultimately, AUKUS highlights an increasing American, Australian, and British commitment and interest in the Indo-Pacific which could create further opportunities for cooperation with like-minded partners such as India and Japan.

The Quad: A brief history

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad had a rocky start when it fell apart a mere year after it was initiated by then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007. Under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Australia chose to distance itself from the Quad, in response to Beijing’s displeasure over planned joint naval exercises. This, coupled with Canberra’s decision to instead proceed with a trilateral dialogue between Japan, Australia and the United States, triggered New Delhi to withdraw from the four-way partnership.

However, nearly a decade later, the Quad was reinvigorated in the background of the 2017 ASEAN Summit. It has since been followed by several meetings at the senior officials’ level, culminating in a joint statement in March 2021 that committed the members to "a shared vision for [a] free and open Indo Pacific". More recently, the in-person leaders’ meeting signalled a further escalation of interest in establishing the Quad as a credible coalition of democracies with vested interests in the Indo-Pacific.

AUKUS and the Quad

There are several potential benefits of AUKUS from the Quad’s perspective. Firstly, it is an endorsement of Canberra’s commitment to being a key presence in the Indo-Pacific. Secondly, it facilitates another grouping of nations with shared interests around a ‘free and open’ Indo- Pacific, possibly taking some pressure off the Quad vis-à-vis China’s displeasure. Tanvi Madan, Director of the India Project at Brookings Institution goes further, suggesting that AUKUS “might make the four-country grouping relatively more palatable to ASEAN in comparison”.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to brief both Japan and India before officially announcing the arrangement highlights Canberra’s view that AUKUS and the Quad are complementary to each other. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that Japan welcomed AUKUS as a means “to strengthen engagement with the Indo-Pacific region”. While India maintained “a studied silence” due to “sensitivities related to the strategic situation in the region and ties with key partners”, privately New Delhi has welcomed AUKUS.

AUKUS not only embeds Australia, the UK, and the US in the Indo-Pacific, it also seeks to “complement Australia’s network of strategic partnerships” such as ASEAN, Five Eyes, and the Quad, as noted by Prime Minister Morrison. This commitment should also work to limit India’s reservations about Australia’s commitment to the Quad based on Canberra’s economic relationship with Beijing. As suggested by Madan, AUKUS will ultimately increase American and Australian capabilities in the region, “which will also, consequently, increase the cumulative capabilities of the Quad”. It doesn’t then come as a surprise that AUKUS signals a greater US and Australian involvement in the Indo-Pacific which should support, not disrupt, the Quad. This is also reflected through an ever-increasing number of meetings between the four nations at the ministerial and official level to streamline cooperation on a range of issues, including responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, what does all this mean for the Quad?

Despite criticism from China that AUKUS is “a psychological blow” for India and Japan, and concerns from some quarters in India that it will sideline the Quad, AUKUS is unlikely to have either of those impacts. In one way, AUKUS brings a security adjunct to the Quad which is the diplomatic outreach to the Indo-Pacific by four democracies”. Ultimately, instead of pushing the Quad to the backburner, AUKUS only seeks to highlight the clear synergies between the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Japan, India, Australia, and the US, and now the UK as well.

Nishtha Sharma holds an honours degree in International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney and works as a consultant focussed on delivering services to the not-for-profit and public sector.

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