The United States builds Atlantic alliances to oppose the power of the Chinese giant
Geopolitics, which can be seen as the exercise of the peaceful use of military power, is the substratum of a "grand chessboard", of the tectonic shifts of power, of the art of long-term foresight. The importance long attached to military power in the international order, and therefore in geopolitics, was eclipsed during the hegemony of the American superpower at the end of the Cold War.
The months of August and September 2021 saw two events of present and future geopolitical significance: the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan and the creation of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia (AUKUS) alliance.
In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington had the opportunity to design the national strategic framework. It could either prepare for a new multipolar scenario or exercise hegemony. The US political elite chose the second option. Thus, for the last generation, the United States, whether under Democrats or Republicans, sought to impose its hegemony, referred to by euphemisms such as "global leadership".
But history is dynamic and shaped by changes in culture, technology and the exercise of power. Five centuries of Western primacy gave way to its decline at the end of the Second World War, and today the international system contains great and middle powers across the global geography. In these circumstances, a policy of hegemony is not sustainable.
Between 2006 and 2008 the US bipartisan political establishment analysed the post-Cold War context, resulting in a substantial revision of US foreign policy. In the foreseeable geopolitical context, China was identified as a growing threat and Russia as a significant challenge. This was the origin of the Obama administration's "Pivot" to Asia. The aim was to contain McKynder's 'heartland' with China and Russia as targets.
Donald Trump continued Obama's policy, but with increased pressure on China. He issued the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 Defence Strategy, in which Great Power Competition was conceptualised. Trump launched the trade and technology "wars" and shifted from the moderate rhetoric of his predecessor to a hostile policy. As a consequence, US-China relations deteriorated significantly. The new presidency was expected to bring with it a moderate foreign policy that would serve to improve relations with China. More than half a year after Biden's inauguration, the improvement in relations with China is not evident.
The conduct of Sino-US bilateral meetings in Alaska and Tianjin in the first half of 2021 is indicative that China knows its geopolitical situation and that its relations with Washington are one of 'competition'. Beijing's strategy is practical, while the US and what is left of the West continues to mechanistically employ an outdated liberal mantra with accusations of human rights violations, just as the rhetoric on Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang continues unabated. Washington, Democrat or Republican, seems to have been in a millenarian stupor. The attitude towards China in the first half of Biden's term has remained hostile, though less strident than in the Trump years. Biden maintains the trade and technology 'wars' as a component of the economic competition of the 2017 US National Security Strategy.Washington maintains Obama's 'Pivot' to the 'Indo-Pacific'. As part of this effort, relations with Japan continue to be strengthened and ties with Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore are being reinforced as part of a policy of containment. It is also trying to advance the "Quad" concept that aligns the US with India, Australia and Japan against China.
China is currently trending towards the number one position in the world economy and India is on the rise. At the same time, the United States is enduring a sharp internal decline, driven internally by what has become known as the "culture war". As a great power, in relative external decline and in marked internal decline, Washington has little room left to make strategic mistakes.
In Asia, most observers had been optimistic that the region's growing economic interdependence and nascent multilateral institutions would be sufficient to establish a long period of stability and prosperity.
Today, Asian institutions are increasingly conspicuous by their absence, and the initially promising mechanisms for crisis avoidance or management have also crumbled as simmering tensions have erupted across the region. Three competing visions of the region's future competed to replace that "order": a US-led "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Perspective" (FOIP), a China-centred regional order, and an "Indo-Pacific Perspective" inspired by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The seemingly sudden developments of the past two months are part of the unfolding of the so-called Strategic Competition. After a lethargy of nearly a decade, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as Quad) formally resumed in August 2017 to contain Beijing's maritime power projection in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Initially founded in 2007, the Quad consists of Australia, India, Japan and the United States, with the possible formation of an Asian NATO announced to counter the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). There were even rumours of a 'Quad Plus' when South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam joined the meetings in March 2020.
In a 2021 joint statement on 'The Spirit of the Quad', the political leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the United States emphasised 'a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)' and a 'rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas' to counter China's maritime threat. This progress was concomitant with the EU's increasingly strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific as France, Germany and the UK accelerated their cooperation with the Quad Plus dialogue. In this context, the AUKUS pact would complement the Quad to counter China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. While AUKUS and the Quad show military muscle and technological capability, they lack fundamental economic proportionality vis-à-vis China.
The Belt and Road Initiative is Beijing's main geo-economic instrument to challenge US global hegemony, while the Quad and AUKUS are geopolitical and military tools to oppose China in the Indo-Pacific. In short, there is a strategic imbalance between proactive power and deterrent action. It is this asymmetry that prompted the Biden Administration to launch a geo-economic vector, "Build Back Better World" (B3W), announced last June at the G-7 summit in Cornwall, UK, against the Belt and Road Initiative. Led from Washington, B3W aims to counter Chinese global influence through massive investment in infrastructure development in developing countries until 2035. The plan is supposed to provide around $40 trillion, mainly from the private sector, to low- and middle-income countries from Latin America and the Caribbean to Africa and Asia. The B3W's global reach would equip its G-7 partners with different geographic orientations to target specific low- and middle-income countries around the world.
The upcoming competition between the B3W, backed by the Quad and AUKUS, and China's BRI will be an episode of the Great Powers Competition. The B3W is not just a US financial response to China's economic ambitions; rather, it is a strategic effort to transform the growing geopolitical disposition of Greater Eurasia and its coastal waters by establishing a new development model. In other words, the US is articulating a geo-economic option against China's BRI to achieve its larger geopolitical goals by mobilising its private companies and those of its allies in a massive infrastructure investment to control the BRI corridors. The new infrastructure "war" would determine the trajectory and path of the geopolitical battle between China and the US for global dominance in the 21st century.
On the other side of the global power equation, China has successfully controlled Central Asian markets while pursuing its doctrine of "positive balance" among all parties in West Asia, on which expanding cooperation with Beijing may be the only aspect on which all regional powers can agree. Beijing has established close economic relations with the Persian Gulf emirates, Israel, Iran and Turkey at the same time. However, Beijing's successful policy of consolidating its connection to West Asia through Central Asia could be disrupted by potential threats emanating from Afghanistan.
The vacuum of the US exit from Afghanistan has the potential to destabilise the land-based Belt, while strong pressure from the Quad and now AUKUS will counter the maritime Road. China, through investment and port acquisitions, is expanding its global maritime influence, an activity that shows no signs of abating. With reference to July 2020, Chinese companies owned or operated some ninety-five ports worldwide".
Of the 95 ports, 22 are in Europe, 20 in the Middle East and North Africa, 18 in the Americas, 18 in South and Southeast Asia and nine in Sub-Saharan Africa. Just three Chinese companies, including COSCO Shipping Ports and China Merchants Port, two central state-owned enterprises (SOEs), account for 81% of the operations of these ports1. Supply chains show their critical value.
The creation of AUKUS is also an indication that globalisation, in its perceived "flat earth" configuration, is coming to an end. Globalisation is now being configured vertically. With technology as a catalyst for change, the global context is dividing and fracturing. Governments are using technology to establish new walls and barriers between themselves and the rest of the world. In the vertical context, entities are constituted with like-minded and like-minded countries, creating a new "boundary" for companies. Some companies, originating from certain countries, may be excluded from participating in initiatives and projects such as AUKUS or Quad.
The traumatic outcome of the Western exit from Afghanistan has exposed the vacuum that underpinned the internationalist rhetoric of "nation building" that accompanied the US-led intervention following the attacks of 11 September 2001, when the administration of President George W. Bush dreamed of transforming Afghanistan into a modern, market-based, functioning democracy. Since then, other inappropriate US-led actions have been identified under both Republican and Democratic presidents. The result has been that the United States pursued a strategy whose goal was not achievable: the spread of democracy.
During the Trump administration, an important conceptual development took place that went unnoticed. Only months after taking office, Donald Trump and his team began referring to the Asia-Pacific as the "Indo-Pacific". This was no accident; it was a highly calculated and conceptually valuable move, a foundation from which new strategic thinking in Washington would begin. By employing the term Indo-Pacific, the United States was simultaneously signalling India's rise and giving geopolitical status to a region that is fast becoming the world's new centre of gravity.
In March 2021, President Biden issued the "Interim National Security Strategy Guidance"2 in which, after indicating that present and future challenges, not past ones, would be addressed, he stated: "Our world is at an inflection point". "Global dynamics have changed. New crises demand our attention. And at this moment of accelerating global challenges, from pandemic to climate crisis to nuclear proliferation to the fourth industrial revolution, one thing is certain: we will only advance American interests and defend our universal values by working in common cause with our closest allies and partners, and by renewing our own enduring sources of national strength. National interest, current conflicts, highly trusted allies and readiness capabilities are the core elements of the new US National Security Strategy.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan raised questions of credibility about US power, amid criticism of the abandonment of an ally, the Kabul government, compounded by the dramatic departure of the Kabul airport. But in Biden's "realist" conception, indefinitely supporting the Afghan government would not have served any US national security interest; it was a "past conflict", according to the INSSG.
Less than a month after the Kabul tragedy, US President Joseph Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched a trilateral security entity, with the acronym AUKUS, to counter China's growing power. Under the AUKUS agreement, announced on 15 September, Australia would obtain nuclear-powered submarines from the US and the UK. Australia will also host US bombers on its territory and have access to advanced missile technology.
The first reaction against the AUKUS came not from China but from France, which had signed an agreement to supply diesel submarines to Australia. Paris reacted angrily, considering itself "stabbed in the back". The reactions of Germany, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation express the perception that the United States no longer prioritises the defence of Europe. It is the materialisation of the conflict between the new American strategic direction and the old realities.
The intrinsic purpose of the trilateral pact is to contain the threat emanating from China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific and its global ambitions. The formation of AUKUS coincides with the intensification of tensions in the Indo-Pacific, specifically in Taiwan, the South China Sea and the East Indian Ocean. The events in Afghanistan and the AUKUS might seem unconnected, given their geographical location, one centred in the Hindu-Kush mountains and the other in the waters of the Indo-Pacific. However, in the geopolitical context, these two events are interconnected in the Sino-US Strategic Competition.
The US, UK and Australia want to use these technologies to build a new kind of footprint in the Indo-Pacific, making AUKUS a new technology-based geopolitical alliance, the first of its kind with global implications.
Through AUKUS, Australia will obtain nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and the United Kingdom and will consider supporting US ships at the Perth base. Australia is also the first country to receive access to US naval reactors since the transfer of technology to the UK in 1958, a sign that the US is changing its mindset of sharing sensitive information with its closest allies. This is a critical step towards "pooling resources and integrating supply chains for science, industry and defence-related supply chains" to secure a technological advantage over China. Through these actions, the Biden Administration will be able to adapt US alliances to the needs of the 21st century.
The establishment of AUKUS reaffirms the US view of the Indo-Pacific as the centre of gravity of the global geopolitical context, thus the Eurasian heartlands would be considered secondary. In other words, Western Europe and the Middle East are no longer priorities. Washington is now putting all its attention on, and marshalling all its resources towards, the Indo-Pacific and thus resorting to technology as a competitive factor in a basically maritime strategic design. The focus of AUKUS is on technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum mechanics and cybernetics.
It should be noted that in contemplating the composition of the AUKUS, the Anglosphere, referring to the links between the United States and the former British colonial dominions of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, plus the United Kingdom, is clear that it was real and will tend to be employed in the strategic future. In terms of foreign direct investment, the economic benchmark in a globalised world, the Anglosphere is at the forefront of geo-economics. For example, the UK is the largest investor in the US, and vice versa.
The commonalities continue at the strategic level, with the remarkable historical fact that in the three global wars of the 20th century (the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War), each of the five Anglo-Saxon states, in all cases, fought on the same side.
The Anglosphere already has its institutional expression in the Five Eyes consortium, the world's largest intelligence-sharing network, in which the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia share common signals intelligence in a way that none of them do with any other ally. Australia monitors South and East Asia. Canada monitors Russia, China, and Latin America. New Zealand is responsible for Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. The UK is in charge of Europe, European Russia, the Middle East, and Hong Kong. Finally, the United States monitors China, the Middle East, Russia, Africa, and the Caribbean3.
This geo-economic, strategic, and institutional proximity is based on Anglo-Saxon countries having a common language, a common democratic culture, and a common capitalist culture. Australia, by choosing the Anglosphere defence link, has just demonstrated that the Anglosphere really exists.
It is clear that AUKUS is intended to contain China's growing influence in the region. It comes in the wake of deteriorating trade and diplomatic relations between China and Australia, in which Beijing has shown little restraint in its use of retaliatory measures to Canberra's COVID-19 claims. Because of economic interdependence with China, Australia seeks security assurances from the US. Predictably, Beijing interprets the agreement as an act of provocation, accusing Washington of employing an 'outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality'.
In light of the Strategic Competition with China, the Biden Administration is moving to tailor alliances to its 'measure', with the rest, such as France, subordinate to this primary objective. All of this has serious implications for Europe, given its special relationship with China, affecting mutual trust between European allies and Washington, which will shape perceptions of the future of the Transatlantic Alliance.
Coincidentally, the formation of AUKUS was announced on the same day that the EU unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy and expanding relations in the region, a matter that was made possible by the intervention of France, whose interests in the Indo-Pacific are well known. In the style of the EU, its Indo-Pacific Strategy is comprehensive, ranging from climate to maritime security, trade to sustainability, and includes all regional stakeholders. It reaches out to other states that have an Indo-Pacific strategy, including the three AUKUS, and is open to China, with which Brussels believes it should engage at least on climate and biodiversity.
"Cooperation, not confrontation' were the words repeatedly chosen by EU high representative Josep Borrell at the press conference launching the strategy. Whether this approach is interpreted as a reflection of the EU's deeper value for de-escalation and dialogue or as the narrative of the bloc's commercial interests in doing business with China, it is at odds with Washington's vision of China as the strategic threat of the 21st century. That is probably the only issue on which there is domestic consensus in Washington.
Instead of the 'pivot' to Asia, which during the years of Barack Obama's presidency made the Europeans fear irrelevance, AUKUS is a strong indication that Washington intends to employ all kinds of strategic means that serve the purpose of containing China, whether or not they are acceptable to European allies. The means include some of the 'coalitions' that the Biden administration has been preparing for some time. This could become a missed opportunity for the US to cooperate with the EU in the Indo-Pacific. In the past, the US and the EU have used 'good cop, bad cop' tactics to deal with difficult situations, for example when European talks with Iran eventually led to non-proliferation negotiations and the JCPOA. Similar agreements require trust between allies and a shared plan of action.
As expressed in the INSSG, trust between allies is an essential issue. Lack of trust undermines the possibility of the US and the EU working together in Strategic Competition. Europe must admit that it is not a strategic actor as its foreign policy vacillations, its inability to invest in its security, the multiple and varied divisions among member states, especially the positions towards China, between ambivalence and mercantilism, have undermined its credibility in Washington's eyes.
The AUKUS agreement has also provoked negative reactions within the Atlantic Alliance. The first backlash against AUKUS came not from China but from France, which had signed a submarine supply agreement with Australia. France reacted angrily, both because of the submarine contract and because it was not named as a preferred ally.
The highest risk for Europe to bear, brought about by AUKUS, is that Strategic Competition with China will increase the precarious balance between Atlanticist partners and those in favour of strengthening Europe's autonomy in international affairs. Already in 2003, the George W. Bush administration's slogan 'you are either with us or against us', used to rally support for military intervention in Iraq, caused deep divisions within Europe, with France, Germany and the Benelux countries refusing to join the coalition.
France and EU institutions have been pushing for greater investment in EU security capabilities, with new defence initiatives announced in a speech on the EU's 'Indo-Pacific' strategy by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen just a day before the AUKUS announcement. But the dilemma to be resolved is a difficult one: the economy of some European states is critically intertwined with that of China, but the security of each and every European state is inextricably linked to the United States.
As for the debate over so-called "strategic autonomy", because it does not refer to sovereignty, it is based on two false premises: the first is that the effect of "more" Europe would mean "less" US; the second is that "more" Europe would require strategic actorhood. Strategic "agency" requires sovereignty.
In Europe, a continent where state perceptions of geopolitical risks diverge depending on geography, issuing simple statements for complex situations becomes an excuse for inaction. However, greater uncertainty over the transatlantic relationship, combined with pressure to shore up against China, risks upsetting Europe's precarious balance that would affect NATO. This is not compatible with US or European interests.
AUKUS is something qualitatively different from what has been employed so far Beyond submarines, AUKUS seeks to lead the technological competition with China by pooling resources for science, industry and defence-related supply chains. This is the multifaceted purpose of a future transnational project that competes to harness the advantages of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and cyber technology.
This kind of technological integration is a radical idea. Countries often share military technology, but some of it is more prized than others. So far, the US has only shared its nuclear submarine technology with the UK, during the Cold War. Technology is entered into as a deterrent4.
Integration into AUKUS will only be possible among the "Five Eyes" partners, because AUKUS will work on extremely sensitive intelligence-related technologies, something Washington would only entrust to its closest intelligence partners. AUKUS' stated technology priorities - artificial intelligence, quantum computing and cybernetics - are technologies that are at the forefront of emerging intelligence capabilities.
This is probably why France was excluded from the grouping, leading to a sudden and acrimonious diplomatic row. Despite its like-minded interests in the region, and despite its military power and activism, France does not share the systems and relationships that define the Five Eyes. In the years to come, AUKUS will likely gain wider regional acceptance and utility if it figures out how to share some of its precious defence technology and data with other partners, including France and others in the region.
AUKUS may represent closer integration between partners, but it cannot replace other coalitions. The "Indo-Pacific" region requires a security architecture to match the new situation, but unlike Cold War institutions such as NATO, the architecture will involve different overlapping organisations, each with different roles. As noted above, the suitability of AUKUS technology sharing is limited.
Different organisations serve different roles. The Quad will be instrumental in coordinating the strategies of China's most powerful regional competitors, in articulating a vision of the regional order, and in being able to act as the nucleus of broader cooperation when necessary. At its first face-to-face summit in mid-September, the Quad reiterated its commitment to promoting a free and open "Indo-Pacific". The Indian government recently stated that AUKUS does not compete with or undermine the Quad.
Partners such as France and India may not be full members of AUKUS, but they are indispensable in roles for which AUKUS is not competent. Each has military capabilities and permanent networks of influence. Each has interests in the region, including bilateral and trilateral partnerships with Australia.
Because AUKUS is more than likely to alter political dynamics in the 'Indo-Pacific', all regional stakeholders have been forced to react, although their attitudes vary. At the regional level, AUKUS confirms the "Indo-Pacific" options: the polarisation of the area between the US and China is not a win-win situation.
Japan has officially expressed its support for the AUKUS initiative, seeing the strengthening of military ties as valid for its plans. India, whose Prime Minister Modi held talks with US President Biden just days after the AUKUS announcement, has been restrained but clearly in favour of AUKUS. Other Asian states are less happy with the idea of having to choose between Washington and Beijing. This is unlikely to be an easy dilemma for those countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia that have so far tried to avoid, as far as possible, aligning themselves with the positions of the two Great Powers.
Meanwhile in Beijing, the AUKUS announcement was understandably met with negative reactions, suggesting that the provision of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia would violate Canberra's commitment under the Rarotonga Treaty, although the document bans nuclear weapons, not nuclear technology.
Interestingly, one of China's reactions to AUKUS concerned its surprising bid for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade agreement initially negotiated by President Obama to counter China's economic influence in the region. The US left the CPTPP in 2017 following a decision by then-president Donald Trump. Beijing's move towards this Asian economic partnership is unlikely to succeed, all eleven signatory states would have to approve its bid and some countries have contentious disputes with China (such as Canada, Japan and Australia). China's offer has been interpreted as political posturing aimed at highlighting the absence of the US in the CPTPP, and possibly driving a wedge between Washington's regional partners.
As noted, diplomatic tensions between the two sides of the Atlantic were exacerbated by the fact that the White House revealed the existence of its new trilateral pact on the exact same day that the EU published its own Indo-Pacific Strategy document. This awkward moment further fuelled the perception that the US, by design or neglect, had marginalised not only France, but also Europe as a whole, from its Indo-Pacific strategy, even though the Biden administration, like its predecessor, had repeatedly called for a greater European contribution to the region.
This transatlantic dispute may not go away easily, as it reopens deep scars between Washington and Paris. It revives the old French sense of isolation from the Anglosphere, already visible with the "Five Eyes" framework and now highlighted by AUKUS. After long years of talk of a withdrawal from the Middle East and a turn towards Asia, both the revival of the Quad and the creation of AUKUS may finally be opening the new chapter in global geopolitics.
The world is becoming a fragmented and dangerous place. There is no defined international order and tensions are rising. The title of the analysis is from the work of Barbara W. Tuchman, the subtitle of which is "The calamitous 14th century".
Enrique Fojón, Marine Colonel (Ret) and researcher at the International Security Centre of the UFV's Institute of International Politics