A new version of containment

Hussein Haridy
Wednesday 22 Sep 2021

The new strategic partnership of the US, Australia, and Britain in the Indo-Pacific region will be seen as a consolidation of Anglo-Saxon cooperation rather than a multilateral effort by the Western alliance, writes Hussein Haridy

On 12 March, newly elected US President Joe Biden hosted his first international summit meeting, held virtually, that brought together the prime ministers of Japan, India and Australia in the so-called Quad grouping. Statements by the four leaders said the main objective was to keep the Indo-Pacific region “open and free” and to defend the “rules-based international order.”

The virtual Quad Summit was a diplomatic success for the Biden administration in its global strategy of competing with China. US officials have since often talked about Chinese “coercion” and threats in the South China Sea as well as against Taiwan.

The global strategy of the US administration is centred around the containment of a rising China. Of course, the White House speaks of a “competition” and the need to engage China, but there is no doubt that the ultimate objective of this strategy is to contain China and build a network of alliances that will turn the Indo-Pacific region into an anti-China space regardless of pronouncements otherwise.

That became clearer last Wednesday when Biden hosted, again in a virtual summit meeting from the White House, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The three leaders announced the creation of a new strategic partnership called AUKUS made up of Australia, the UK and the US. 

According to a statement released on 15 September, the three countries are resolved “to deepen diplomatic, security and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, including by working with partners, to meet the challenges of the 21st century.” It went on to say that in order to achieve this goal, the three countries had agreed to establish AUKUS.

In his opening remarks at the summit meeting, Biden stressed that AUKUS aimed at deepening and formalising security and defence cooperation among the three countries that believe it is imperative to “ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long-term.”

He added that there is a need to address the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve. In the meantime, he emphasised that Washington in launching AUKUS was linking its allies and partners around the world “in new ways” and amplifying their joint capabilities “to collaborate, recognising that there is no regional divide separating the interests of the Atlantic and Pacific partners.” This remains to be seen.

One of the concrete programmes announced by the three leaders was the construction of nuclear-powered, conventionally-armed submarines for Australia. This programme led to the cancellation by the Australian government of a lucrative deal with France to build 12 ultra-modern conventional submarines for the Australian Navy worth 30 billion Euros. The French had earlier called this “the deal of the century” as far as they were concerned.

Its cancellation caused anger and consternation in Paris. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian called the decision to cancel the deal a “stab in the back.” In order to show how deep this anger was in France, the French government recalled its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra “for consultation.” 

The prevailing impression in Paris is that the US has preferred to work with its “Anglo-Saxon” allies rather than with Europeans. What is more serious from an American standpoint is the belief in France, reaffirmed by the creation of AUKUS, that joining the West and the US in efforts to secure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific should not be directed against China and that any US-Chinese confrontation should not become a Chinese-European one.  

This position by France is shared by other members of the NATO alliance and to varying degrees by London. Europe has a strategic interest in not transforming the Indo-Pacific into a new strategic divide with military dimensions and into a possible future battlefield between the West and China. The US should take this into account, particularly after its recent debacle in withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan. 

It is interesting to note that despite the growing doubts among NATO members about the credibility of the US when it comes to close coordination and consultations with its allies and partners, in announcing the formation of AUKUS Biden still reiterated that Washington “will continue to work with ASEAN and the Quad, our five treaty allies and other close partners in the Indo-Pacific, as well as allies and partners in Europe and the world, to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

 Underestimating the depth of the disappointment in France, he spoke of the role of France by saying that “France, in particular, already has a substantial Indo-Pacific presence and is a key partner and ally in strengthening the security and prosperity of the region.”   

Unlike the containment of the former Soviet Union, a successful US strategy in the Cold War in maintaining the cohesion and coherence of the Western alliance against it, the new US attempts at recreating a containment-inspired network of alliances to contain the emergence of China as a rival superpower needs further strengthening, taking into account the interests of all the US allies and partners and not only US interests.

AUKUS will be seen as a consolidation of Anglo-Saxon strategic cooperation rather than a multilateral effort by the Western alliance to meet the challenges to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region. As a result, the French concept of the “strategic autonomy” of Europe will gain wider support and a certain credibility. 

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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