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Taming the Bully: AUKUS and the South China Sea

by Sitendu De

Cartoon by Rebel Pepper

The South China Sea, a part of the Pacific Ocean, extending from the Strait of Malacca in the southwest to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast, has become a conflict zone. All the coastal countries of the South China Sea, including China, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, are claiming economic and security interests.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Sea remained almost quiet. Even after World War II, no claimant occupied a single island in the entire South China Sea.

China laid claim to the South China Sea in 1947 and vehemently started claiming after the 1960's when the huge reserve of oil and natural gas were discovered in the region.

The South China Sea is now a busy international waterway and one of the main arteries of global trade worth more than $5 trillion and is growing every year.

The islands of the South China Sea are into two island chains.

· The Parcels Islands: These are clustered in the northwest corner of the Sea.

· The Spratly Islands: These are located in the southeast corner.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994, established a legal framework intended to balance coastal states' economic and security interests with those of seafaring nations.

While UNCLOS has been signed and ratified by nearly all the coastal countries in the South China Sea, based on their own interpretation of the UNCLOS, the claimant countries started to legitimize their claims.

In 2002, ASEAN and China came together to sign the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to keep disputes away. However, it did not achieve the desired outcomes.

The US and the South China Sea

· The US has no claim in the South China Sea, but has been highly critical of China's assertiveness and insisted on free navigation of commercial vessels in the South China Sea, vital for regional and international trade.

· It conducted joint military patrols with the Philippines and Japan, Australia and Indonesia.

·The US also increased the financial support for enhancing the military capabilities of ASEAN and East Asian countries as well as strengthening bilateral defense collaboration with these countries.

The South China Sea has been witnessing a lot of unfortunate conflicts in terms of economic interests, civilian security, and the environment in the recent past. The illegal construction of artificial islands and nuclear power plants on these fragile islands in the region by China raises severe environmental threats to the South China Sea.

Countries from Singapore, Indonesia to Japan, and Taiwan have been busy inducting submarines in their armory to counter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

India and the South China Sea-:

India has wider stakes in the South China Sea as nearly 55% of India's trade with the Indo-Pacific region passes through these waters. India's interest is primarily to keep the region's trade routes safe and secure, thereby helping regional stability and freedom of navigation.

How well is India prepared to tackle China's intimidation?

· India has, on record holds 12 old diesel-electric submarines, out of which six are battle-worthy.

· One nuclear-powered submarine with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles ( INS Arihant)

· 3 French-made "Scorpene" submarines inducted out of 6 ordered.

Now compare the strength of Chinese Naval Power

· 350 warships

· 10 Nuclear submarines

To counter China's aggression, especially in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific Region, India should immediately induct 18 conventional submarines, 6 nuclear-powered submarines; 4 nuclear submarines with nuclear warheads.

To tame China, especially in the South China Sea, the US has teamed up with the United Kingdom and Australia to form AUKUS (Acronym for Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States) to counter China's maritime belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region. As part of this, Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines with help from the UK and the US.

Why is Australia getting Nuclear – powered submarines?

Strategic military power plays are mainly based on naval power in today's warfare, and submarines play a vital role.

Why submarines, especially nuclear-powered ones?

· Submarines are given preference as they have long-range, striking, and projection capabilities and also for stealth. With nuclear submarines, these factors are multiplied.

· Conventional Submarines need to come to the surface to recharge their batteries, but nuclear-powered submarines need not come to the surface to recharge their batteries.

· Nuclear-powered submarines can move faster underwater than conventional submarines. So, these will strengthen Australia's defense capabilities and change the defense quotient in the Indo-Pacific.

The announcement of the grouping is significant as the Indo-Pacific is fast emerging as the stage for geopolitical rivalry, with China staking claim over the whole of the South China Sea.

The key features of the AUKUS Security Alliance are-:

·Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines

·The UK and the US will help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and not nuclear-armed.

·The nuclear-powered submarines will be conventionally armed. It will be built in Adelaide, Australia.

·USA is sharing the technology for nuclear submarines after 70 years after it was shared with the UK in 1958.

·Only the US, the UK, France, Russia, China, and India possess nuclear-powered submarines. Australia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), preventing it from acquiring or deploying nuclear weapons. Their submarines are Nuclear-powered and not nuclear submarines that carry nuclear warheads.

(From L) Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. President Joe Biden and Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison pose for a photo on Sept. 24, 2021, at the White House in Washington. (Photo courtesy of the Japanese Cabinet Public Relations.

The significance of the AUKUS Security Alliance-:

·Compliment the efforts of QUAD (A strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India) in the Indo-Pacific as it will be a "game-changer" for the region.

·AUKUS will amount to an increase in the QUAD's undersea and anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

· The QUAD is not a security grouping, so the AUKUS brings a security aspect to the QUAD and moves on parallel tracks.

·The nuclear-powered submarines will give Australia a naval advantage in the South China Sea to protect its assets and conduct patrols.

·Apart from complimenting the QUAD, the AUKUS will also compliment the other security alliances in the Indo-Pacific like ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, and the United States security Treaty, or ANZUS Treaty, was an agreement signed in 1951 to protect the security of the Pacific) and Five Eyes alliance (an intelligence-sharing arrangement between five English-speaking democracies the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It evolved during the Cold War as a mechanism for monitoring the Soviet Union and sharing classified intelligence)

Why has China raised its concerns regarding the AUKUS Security Alliance?

·AUKUS aims to protect the partners' strategic interests in a region that spans two oceans and 38 countries.

·It is a message to China from the US.

·Sharing of military and critical capabilities like cyber, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. It is a cause of concern for China, as these are the key areas China is dominating at present.

·AUKUS is a security grouping, unlike QUAD, which is a diplomatic grouping.

·A new low in Australia-China relations: China is Australia's biggest trading partner, with two-way trade of nearly US $200 billion. But the relationship has soured over the last few years.

·For these reasons, China called the new AUKUS partnership "severely damaging regional peace and stability."

What does the AUKUS Security Alliance mean for India?

The partnership has much significance for India. QUAD is meaningless without the necessary capability upgrade for all its members, especially Australia and Japan. This will make India's partners become more self-confident and assured of their defense capabilities.

The AUKUS and a future American military base on Australian soil will help India protect the Indo-Pacific until India improves upon her naval capabilities.


India now has a little less to worry about on the maritime front with AUKUS in play. The new alliance would allow the three nations to sharpen their focus on an increasingly complicated part of the world. The AUKUS trilateral will be a huge message to China, and it will move a step closer to balance China in the Indo-Pacific region.


About the Author

Sitendu De got his education from St.George's Grammar School, Hyderabad and Post graduated from Osmania University, Hyderabad. He joined Cabinet Secretariat, New Delhi as an officer and was posted at different places in India. After serving for 20 years he joined the corporate world as a business strategist and recruiting new talents. He did Strategic Management Course from IIM (Calcutta). He had won a number of prizes in English essay writing competitions in the national circuit. He had been promoting English to the underprivileged for the last ten years. He is a prolific writer, specializes in geopolitical and human interactions. He lives in Kolkata with his wife and son.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.

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