Why the AUKUS, Quad and Five Eyes pacts anger China
The newly sealed Australia-UK-US defence accord, known as AUKUS, reflects rising global concern over China’s ascendancy. So does renewed activity within two other groupings of leading democracies, Five Eyes and the Quad.
Aligning against the world’s largest exporter and possessor of the largest active military is no easy task, but the effort has been helped by China’s own actions toward some of its neighbours.
China lashed out at what it calls a “Cold War mentality,” denouncing AUKUS and warning that it will stoke an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. David Rowe
What’s the point of AUKUS?
It’s a security pact announced in September with the initial purpose of helping Australia develop at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, a project that could take more than a decade.
At the moment, only six nations - the US, the UK, France, China, Russia and India - have the technology to deploy and operate nuclear-powered subs, which are faster than their diesel-electric counterparts, can stay submerged almost indefinitely and have space for more weapons, equipment and supplies.
What are Five Eyes and the Quad?
Five Eyes is an intelligence-sharing arrangement among the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that began with intercepted signals communications during World War II. Its existence wasn’t publicly acknowledged until the early 2000s.
The Quad is an on-again, off-again grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia with roots in cooperative disaster response efforts following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
It was revived most recently in 2017, and US President Joe Biden convened the first in-person Quad summit in September. The Quad rarely invokes China by name and emphasises its work on humanitarian issues like vaccine distribution. But then-US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, in a 2019 speech, said the group “will prove very important” in “ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world”.
How have China’s actions strengthened the alliances?
Australia has long balanced security ties with the US and close economic ties with China, insisting it didn’t need to pick sides. That’s changed.
After Australia in 2020 urged an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, which was first identified in China, and then participated in naval exercises with its Quad partners, China responded by threatening a consumer boycott, restricting imports of Australian products and warning Chinese citizens they might be targets of racist attacks should they travel to Australia.
India, too, has become a less cautious member of the Quad, following clashes with China at their disputed border in the Himalayas.
What suggests a growing focus on China?
The most obvious use for those Australian nuclear-powered subs, with their capability to travel vast distances without surfacing, would be as a counter to China’s navy.
Japan and South Korea, two democracies that have had fiery spats with China in the past decade, are mentioned as possible additions to Five Eyes.
A recent Quad statement vowing to “meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas,” was an apparent reference to China’s territorial claims. The existence of the Quad raises the prospect that Australia, India and Japan could join the European Union in backing the US in any conflict with China, according to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, now president of the Asia Society in New York.
He wrote in August, “If the Quad were to draw other Asian countries, the EU, and NATO into efforts to confront or undermine China’s international ambitions, it could over time swing the collective balance of power definitively against China.”
What tensions exist within the alliances?
Under President Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, the US threatened to limit the intelligence it supplies to its Five Eyes partners unless they joined its campaign to ban equipment from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies in new 5G mobile networks.
Australia and the UK joined the ban; New Zealand didn’t but hasn’t approved Huawei involvement in 5G development. Canada was still deciding as of late 2021.
China has used trade reprisals, most prominently against Australia, to warn nations against challenging its interests. New Zealand - which, like Australia, had long tried to maintain good relations with China, its largest trading partner - has elected not to sign some Five Eyes statements criticising China over human-rights and political issues.
The AUKUS deal enraged another US ally, France, which sees itself as an Indo-Pacific power and had planned to sell its own non-nuclear subs to Australia.
How has China reacted?
It’s lashed out at what it calls a “Cold War mentality,” denouncing such partnerships as anti-China “cliques” and warning that AUKUS will stoke an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region.
In an attempt to show that it’s more interested in economic cooperation than military confrontation, China applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. That Asia-Pacific trade pact was originally pushed by the US as a way to solidify its dominance in the region, but then the US itself dropped out.