AUKUS: playing mikado in the South Pacific

Joe Biden

Little could Francisco Silvela have imagined when he signed the sale of the islands of the Caroline and Mariana archipelagos to the German Empire in February 1899 the geostrategic importance that this part of the world would gain 120 years later.

Yet nothing could be truer. After a stentorian preliminary in the form of a formal abandonment of Central Asia on 11 September, Washington and its staunchest allies have been quick to up the ante in South Asia, having shaken off 20 years of military anchor in Afghanistan and neighbouring areas.

As in the popular Chinese game of mikado, manipulating overlapping elements in a given geopolitical configuration risks causing the collapse of the whole, either through miscalculation or overconfidence. History is replete with such cases, one of the most notable being Khrushchev's October 1962 decision, on the eve of a mid-term election that did not look particularly promising for John F. Kennedy, to install nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, partly in reaction to the recent installation of similar US nuclear missiles in Turkey.  

While from a strictly military point of view, the deployment of the Russian missiles did not change one iota the mutual destructiveness of the Russians and Americans - as Kennedy himself pointed out to his cabinet - the political cost of allowing the Soviet missiles to exist was unacceptable to the US president, who ultimately showed immense statesmanship by secretly negotiating with Khrushchev the withdrawal of Russian missiles in Cuba in exchange for the surreptitious withdrawal of American missiles in Turkey. 

Yet only the mettle of a few military officers and the political courage of a few civilians on both sides prevented an Armageddon due to misperceptions and misunderstandings. Without comparing the situations, the materialisation of a deal to transfer technology from the United States to Britain to develop a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, breaking a contract with France; keeping the European Union in the dark; and seven months before the French presidential elections, it has not been a particularly deft manoeuvre by the White House, and it remains to be seen how pyrrhic this battle for control of the South China Sea is, in terms of the deterioration of transatlantic relations and the risk of a potential arms race with China, which can hardly tolerate any form of Western interventionism that arouses the slightest reminiscence of the Century of Humiliation. All in all, Beijing is more than aware of the results for the USSR of devoting enormous resources to countering the vast technological programme called the 'Strategic Defence Initiative' announced by Reagan in 1983 - the famous 'Star Wars' that never came to fruition. Nor is Beijing unaware of the consequences for the Japanese Empire of its military reaction to the seizure of all Japanese assets ordered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in concert with the British Empire, which wiped out 75% of Japan's foreign trade overnight, as well as 90% of its crude oil imports. 

China is therefore unlikely to overreact to the Anglo-Saxon on terms that would suit the Anglo-Saxons, for example by taking back Taiwan 'manu militari'. It is more plausible to expect it to act by taking advantage of the cracks opened up by the US-UK-Australia agreement, which significantly has not been joined by Canada or New Zealand, and which has snubbed the European Union by aggravating France, the EU's main strategic actor in the region.   

All these international players know that what is really at stake is a trade war between the two economic giants, which has regained intensity as a result of the effect that the pandemic has had on the supply of rare earth derivatives that are essential for manufacturing the electronic components on which the digital economy is based, which has exacerbated a rise in the price of these materials that had already occurred in the context of the aforementioned trade war. One of the keys to understanding this conflict is that China controls 55% of the global production capacity of rare earth metals, as well as 85% of the refining of these metals (including the 50,000 tonnes per year of concentrates extracted in the USA, which are sent to China for final processing). China imposed export controls on these activities, which account for 95% of global supply, in June 2021. It was not for nothing that Deng Xiaoping once said that the Middle East was more China's oil than rare earths. Today, the industrialised West is as dependent on China as it was on OPEC in the 1970s, so gunboat diplomacy risks being perceived as a show of impotence rather than strength. 

Significantly, China's first move following the launch of the AUKUS trio has not been to rattle sabres, but to submit its official application to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a decision that has been publicly welcomed by New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor, whose government does not appear to be in favour of joining a concerted Anglo-Saxon foreign policy based on belligerence.

Similarly, the AUKUS initiative provides an added incentive for the EU to move towards strategic autonomy from both the US and China, something that requires first amending the union's treaties in key areas such as defence and health, and then creating new regulatory frameworks - a monumental task that far exceeds the modest ambition embodied to date in the run-up to the 'Conference on the Future of Europe'.  As the UK left the European Union, it took with it the alibis that allowed European leaders to avoid grabbing the bull by the horns of Europe's political union. With AUKUS on the table, there are no more excuses.