AMORE THAN TEN Years ago, President Barack Obama visited the Australian parliament to announce a pivot to Asia. “The United States is a power of the Pacific and we are here to stay,” he said. This week, the White House will echo similar sentiments, as the leaders of the Quad countries – America, Australia, India and Japan – meet in person for the first time. We will speak of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, a code to face an assertive China. The rhetoric will be familiar, but the reaction may not be: this time, friend and foe may actually believe it.
The reason is AUKUS, an agreement announced last week for America and Britain to supply Australia with at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. The deal caused waves because of its enormous size and because it sparked an unseemly feud with France, which had its own submarine contract with Australia which has now been scrapped.
This belies AUKUSthe real meaning of, which is like a step towards a new balance of power in the Pacific. In a region where alliances have sometimes seemed fragile, especially under the presidency of Donald Trump, AUKUS marks a hardening of American mentalities. It’s a decades-long and deep commitment: America and Britain are transferring some of their most sensitive technologies. The cooperation of the three countries promises to embrace cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and much more.
For this, the Biden administration deserves to be congratulated. And yet, the deal is still only half a strategy. America’s relationship with China involves more than a military standoff. In the pursuit of coexistence, America must also combine collaboration on issues such as climate change with rules-based economic competition. The missing parts relate to all of Southeast Asia, which is home to some of the countries most vulnerable to Chinese pressure. And here, American politics are still in trouble.
Lest it sound reluctant, consider first AUKUSthe merits. After Mr. Obama’s pivot, America’s friends in Asia have suffered a decade of disappointment. China has seized and fortified rocks and reefs in the South China Sea, despite competing claims from countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. Last year, its soldiers clashed with those from India on the border. Its fighter jets and battleships are constantly increasing the pressure on Taiwan, which it regularly hints it could invade. China has punished South Korea for perceived slights through ruinous trade boycotts. Many Asian countries were beginning to fear that America was too inconsistent and lukewarm to provide a counterweight.
AUKUS offers a rebuttal. One dimension is military. Amid the sea lanes and islands that are hot spots with China, nuclear submarines are more versatile than diesel-electric submarines. They can gather intelligence, deploy special forces and hide for months in the deep waters of the Pacific or Indian Ocean, a threat Chinese planners will need to heed. What’s more, AUKUS clears the way for US forces to operate around Australia, which could serve as a safe haven against increasingly threatening missiles from China. The fact that Australia has abandoned the French agreement for the Anglo-American agreement is proof of strategic seriousness.
AUKUSThe other dimension is diplomatic. In recent times, Australia has borne the brunt of aggressive Chinese tactics, particularly after calling for an investigation into the possibility that covid-19 escaped from a Chinese lab. As punishment for this and other grievances, China has imposed an unofficial embargo on a series of Australian exports. China’s belligerence is typical of the “wolf warrior” diplomacy that has sown consternation across Southeast Asia and beyond. By strengthening Australia, AUKUS sends a signal to the region that America has no qualms about supporting allies who resist Chinese intimidation.
The question is how America should supplement the hard power of AUKUS with the commitment to trade and work with China. President Joe Biden expressed his aspirations this week in his address to the UN General Assembly in New York. Stating that he did not want a cold war with China (although he did not mention it by name), the president called for “relentless diplomacy” to solve the world’s problems.
All in front AUKUS threatens this objective. And yet, in the long run, China will join global efforts to tackle global warming not as a boost to America, but because it sees them in its best interests. Just this week, China announced it would stop funding overseas coal-fired power plants. It was an easy promise, as that funding had already declined, but it was a promise China could have turned down to signal its anger.
It will be more difficult to find the balance on business competition. Mr. Biden’s economic policy towards China aims to increase national security by creating jobs in the country, with a Maginot line of industrial goals, regulation and government intervention. His Build Back Better World, a development finance mechanism (whose name he verified at UN) is a pale imitation of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.
Meanwhile, China, already the largest trading partner of most countries in the region, is strengthening its ability to shape the global economic and trade architecture. It places its employees in important positions in international institutions. It exports its national regulatory standards, such as, for example, its claim to jurisdiction over international legal disputes. This week, he asked to join the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact that America defended to counter China, then withdrew from Donald Trump.
Southeast Asia looks to China for its prosperity, so for America to act as a counterweight, it takes skill and imagination. A sign of America’s insufficiency is that even the most obvious path – to join the successor of the TPP– is seen in Washington as hopelessly ambitious. Almost as disturbing, as America attempts a fiercely complex balancing act, Mr. Biden’s diplomacy with France on AUKUS and its European allies on the withdrawal from Afghanistan were incompetent.
Celebrate AUKUS so. By signaling to China that its assertiveness has consequences, the pact aims to make Southeast Asia more secure. But remember that an agreement on nuclear-powered submarines is just a down payment on a larger Chinese strategy that, from now on, will become increasingly difficult to implement. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Resurfacing”