When powerful regimes wish to sidestep the tag of being labelled practitioners of unilateralism in a globalised world, they are often quick to put together disguised forms of the same concept, using a different title.
In geopolitical literature, there are many examples of the much-maligned unilateralism that invariably gets camouflaged as something else. The one example that easily comes to mind is the 2003 invasion of Iraq when the US bluntly undermined the authority of the UN and cobbled together what became known as the “Coalition of the willing” that was masterminded by then US President George W Bush and his UK counterpart, Tony Blair.
Very few countries signed up to that dodgy military offensive to depose – and later kill – Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein. In Africa, only one country is known to have signed up to the Coalition of willing, and that was Uganda. Reports at the time indicated that the East African country under the decades-old rule of one man – Yoweri Museveni – had been promised HIV/Aids medicine in return for enlisting to what was clearly a US-led unilateral invasion of a sovereign state under the guise of searching and destroying the so-called weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons were never found at the end of the shock and awe streak of bombardment of the once-stable Gulf state.
But Bush and Blair quit office without a single apology for misleading the world. Instead, they harped on and on about a “good job” they did of ridding the world of Saddam Hussein. Both leaders insisted that “the world is a better place without Saddam”.
Recent developments in the Indo-Pacific region reminded me of the above episode. The US, UK and Australia announced that they have formed a trilateral security partnership called AUKUS. A Global Times editorial described AUKUS as a version of a “small NATO”.
The emergence of AUKUS took many NATO member-states by surprise. But France was particularly incensed. AUKUS meant food out of the mouth of France, literally speaking. The French had earlier entered into a bilateral agreement with Australia to build them a billion-dollar submarine. Canberra walked away from the agreement without any iota of decency to engage with the French about the change in plans. And, out of the blue, the US President Joe Biden announced that his country stood to benefit from executing the same submarine plan for the Australians to the tune of a whopping A$90 billion.
French Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian could not hide his public outrage, describing the deal as “a stab in the back”. French President Emmanuel Macron protested the development by recalling his envoys from both Canberra and Washington. It was only after a telephone talk with President Biden that the French ambassador to Washington was returned to his post.
But the hullabaloo around AUKUS is not purely about economics. The US is set to share its nuclear submarine technology with Australia. The latest developments are viewed in geopolitics as the American plan to create as many blocs as possible to counter China’s rise, particularly militarily, not only in the region but also in the world.
Through AUKUS, the US is hoping to lure other countries in the Indo-Pacific region to its corner against the threats – perceived or real – that is posed by a powerful China.
International relations observers believe that this strategy would not succeed. Almost all countries in the region have strong economic ties with China. And, in the light of growing mistrust in the US foreign policy since the Trump administration era, many countries no longer trust Washington, whose major focus is “Making America Great Again”, or post-Trump, “America First” policy.
As a result, there is hardly any nation in the Indo-Pacific region that is prepared to rely on US military support and trigger a war with China. Besides, Beijing’s foreign policy that is premised on Multilateralism is a constant theme of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party of China. President Xi reiterated the same stance during his recent address to the UN General Assembly. So China is clear that it seeks confrontation with no one, and that negotiations are a key component of Beijing’s foreign policy.
Worth noting is that within a couple of years the US has developed two questionable alliances in the Indo-Pacific region. Although AUKUS is the latest, the first was Quad. The latter consisted of the US, Japan, India and Australia. In the wake of AUKUS, it seems that the Quad is moribund. International relations analysts believe that drawing India into the Quad was primarily more about keeping New Delhi preoccupied with China so as to keep Washington focussed on other global challenges. The US has exhibited the propensity to pursue a strategy of roping in almost every willing country into a regional and global anti-China united front.
Since the end of the Cold War when the former Soviet Union officially collapsed at the turn of the 1990’s, the US has enjoyed the status of being the world’s only remaining superpower. The quiet emergence of China as a superpower sends shockwaves in the US. But instead of embracing the developmental advantages that has seen the rapid rise of China in the 21st century – marked by a successful war on hunger and poverty – Washington appears determined to counter competition, sometimes by means that are at odds with international law.
But the bigger conundrum for the US is the trust deficit. France’s anger at the manner in which AUKUS was formed and the snatching of a submarine deal from their claws added to the mistrust that the European Union and NATO have of the US. The recent unilateral decision to withdraw from Afghanistan left many traditional allies of the US rethinking the way-forward.
In its desire to undermine China’s epic rise, the US is prepared to formulate multiple alliances that really serve as a distraction, if not irritation – or both. To provide Australia with a nuclear submarine technology clearly undermines the nuclear non-proliferation system from which the West have benefitted the most.
And if the US and Britain succeed in helping Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, the trend will no doubt open the doors for every country in the world to acquire same. This will mean the global legalisation of the export and import of such technologies. The advent of a free-for-all. And this cannot be good for global peace and security. The US should urgently revise its foreign policy stance towards China and pursue diplomacy instead of under-handed methods that are aimed at undermining the legitimate development of China.
Bilateral relations between China and Australia have always been cordial. But AUKUS is turning them frosty. To align Australia with Washington in the US-China strategic brinkmanship, Australia is noticeably playing a very dangerous game that could boomerang on Canberra. Australia should not become an anti-China spearhead. That would be unwise. The last thing the country needs is to be an object of Beijing’s countermeasures. There can only be one winner.