AUKUS puts India on the backfoot
Even as India leases submarines from Russia and sub-leased one to Myanmar to counter Chinese naval power, AUKUS signals a growing lack of confidence in India’s ability to help contain China
Several observers believe it will become increasingly difficult for President Biden to enlist a democracy-shunning India in alliances like the Quad, positioned against an undemocratic China. They also reckon that India’s inability to deal with China’s cross-border invasion in eastern Ladakh in May 2020, undermined confidence in its ability to secure maritime boundaries an ocean away.
The perception gaining ground worldwide is that while the Modi government is unhesitant in acting against its own people – migrant workers, farmers, the Covid-afflicted, journalists, the Opposition, the middle class and poor, dissenters, students, women and girl protesters, ailing and aged activists and retired civil servants- it is powerless in confronting external threats and aggression.
The formation on 15 September of the new trilateral security alliance for the Indo-Pacific, called AUKUS (an acronym of the three partner countries, Australia, the UK and the US), also complicates India’s dependability in the US-led campaign against a rising China in this region.
Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison jointly pledged to embark on a “next generation partnership” clearly aimed at checking China’s influence in the region.
As the first initiative to be pursued over the next 18 months, the US and the UK would collaborate on enabling Australia to build at least eight nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarines (SSNs) for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). They will be constructed in Adelaide, with the first expected to be built by 2040.
Australia will be only the second country to be provided the naval propulsion reactor (NPR) technology by the US, which had produced the world’s first SSN, the USS Nautilus, in 1954. The UK had been the first, when the US supplied it the S5W pressurised water reactor (PWR) design, complete propulsion machinery set, auxiliary equipment, as well as fissile material for core fabrication and the offer to reprocess spent fuel in the US.
S5W powered the Royal Navy’s first nuclear-submarine, HMS Dreadnought, launched in 1960. A third generation PWR, namely, PWR3, will now power the four successor Dreadnought class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) that will replace the Vanguard class submarines from 2028 onwards and will host the Royal British Navy’s nuclear deterrent.
The formation of AUKUS has brought the region to a boil, as it was viewed as a challenge by both China, which is expanding its profile in the region, and its affiliate, North Korea, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suspects to have revived its nuclear programme.
Even as the region was shaken yet again by missile tests being conducted by both North and South Korea, the former saw the AUKUS deal starting “a chain of nuclear weapons races” in the Indo-Pacific. It warned that if it perceived “even a slight” threat to its security, it would take “equivalent counter-action”.
American nuclear submarines – and, as a corollary, also British - operate on reactors fuelled by weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium (HEU) having 93.5% of U-235, the only naturally occurring fissile isotope that makes it widely usable in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.
Chinese and French NPRs use low-enriched uranium (LEU) that contains less than 20% U-235, rendering it not weapon-useable. Russia and India use medium-enriched uranium. The US Congress was also concerned that non-weapon states, like Iran or Brazil for instance, which are interested in acquiring or developing SSNs, could well use the US example to justify producing and stockpiling weapon-usable HEU, thereby destabilising the non-proliferation regime.
Though the three AUKUS partners stressed that the submarines would be nuclear-powered and not nuclear-armed to ensure full compliance under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), China took umbrage. It termed the move “extremely irresponsible” and said it would ‘severely damage’ peace and stability, and risk triggering an arms race in the Indo-Pacific.
Russia is the only country that leases out its nuclear-powered submarines, and India is the only country that leases them. In a move that had then raised concerns globally, Moscow had leased out a Soviet-built Project 670 Skat (NATO classification Charlie-I class) nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine (SSGN) to India from 1988 to 1991. It was bereft of the cruise missiles to adhere to the NPT, but gained Indian Navy the crucial capability to operate a high technology vessel.
Though the NPT bans outright the sale of nuclear-submarines, it has no specific guidance on leasing or on trade in NPRs. In 2012, the Indian Navy took another SSN, of the Akula class, on a 10-year lease at a cost of $2 billion. The double-hulled submarine was returned in June, a year earlier, owing to an explosion on board that damaged both its hulls. Russia is reportedly modernising another Akula class attack submarine that will be delivered to the Indian Navy by 2025 under a $3 billion 10-year lease.
India has simultaneously pursued a classified programme to indigenously design and build three 6,000-tonne SSBNs, conceived way back in 1998. The first of the series, INS Arihant, however, joined service only in 2016, with its successor, Arighat, due to join next year.
India, however, has high stakes in the matter of submarine powerplay, being a lessee as well as a lessor, apart from being a builder of its own submarines as also those under technology transfer.
In December 2019, it helped the Myanmar Navy acquire its third dimension by transferring a 3,000-tonne 1988-commissioned Russian-built Kilo class Type 877EKM SSN, INS Sindhuvir, from its own fleet. The five-year lease was undertaken through a Line of Credit (LOC), and followed a two-year refit of at an Indian defence shipyard.
This move was intended to checkmate China’s strategic inroads into the Indian neighbourhood, and provide the Myanmar Navy an interim capability to train crews and prepare to expand its undersea fleet through a likely follow-up acquisition of two additional Kilo class submarines from Russia.
Beijing’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy designed to encircle India has led it to sell Bangladesh two refurbished Type 035G Ming class submarines for $204 million in 2017, and eight S20 submarines to Pakistan for about $5 billion that will join the Pakistan Navy by 2028.
India also believes that the Maldivian island of Feydhoo Finolhu, which a Chinese company acquired in 2016 on a 50-year lease for $4 million, may be used as a listening post to track Indian naval movements in this strategic part of the Indian Ocean and to berth nuclear submarines.
It is in this overwrought environment that Washington is vying for a resurgence. To a network of Indo-Pacific partnerships, it has added AUKUS by co-opting the UK to refurbish London’s standing in the region. Britain has announced its post-Brexit “Asia Tilt” that reckons on finalising trade deals in the Indo-Pacific to replace those lost from the European Union.
To signal its outreach into the region, the Boris Johnson government recently dispatched a carrier strike group led by its new £3-billion aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth into the contested South China Sea. Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced that following on from the strike group’s inaugural deployment, the UK would permanently assign two ships in the region from later this year.
Apart from the AUKUS submarines, Canberra has unveiled a $90 billion plan for building new naval ships and submarines, more than $1 billion in modern shipyard infrastructure, and up to $62 million in workforce growth and skilling initiatives to enable the delivery of these platforms.
These moves certainly do not envisage a resurgence of “Rule, Britannia” of the British Empire. But they may presage an eventual supplanting of India by the UK in Washington’s scheme of things, signalling the Biden administration’s waning dependence on India in rebalancing the power equations in the littoral.