Dual-track, loose, and tight formations of Indo-Pacific alliances could outpace China’s naval build-up. Such groupings make the task of projecting power out beyond China’s littoral all the more treacherous.
A record-breaking 56 Chinese aircraft violated Taiwan’s air space on Monday 4 October 2021. While headlines may have looked to the skies, what was afoot in the waters below that day was all the more impressive. The site of six countries — the US, UK, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, and the Netherlands — surfacing 17 ships for joint exercises around Okinawa is a sign of the times and reflects the Indo-Pacific’s strategic significance as more players invest in the region.
The complex layering of national strategies is not uncoordinated diplomacy but a natural phase in the evolution of the regional paradigm, as different actors’ interests flow together to form a networked safety net for the region’s security. While China is a swift shipbuilder, liberal democracies may yet outpace it by leveraging their advantage in alliance building to tilt the naval playing field in their favour.
Morton Kaplan’s systems theory of international competition shows how the Cold War from 1950 to 1974 was a “tight bipolarity,” with no middle ground for rapprochement, but the “loose bipolarity” after the Helsinki Summit in 1975 gradually led to détente. A “tightening” is underway again, with many of the same industrialised democracies that showed a leap in anti-China sentiment in Pew’s 2020 poll now deploying naval forces on China’s doorstep. Though moving at different speeds, the players are slowly forming an interrelated web that protects their shared interests in the region.
Given the awkward optics of AUKUS, it may seem ironic at this point that France was the first to conceptualise the “Indo-Pacifique.” Though famed French voyagers-cum-ecologists like Jacques Cousteau’s usage was decidedly a-geopolitical, evoking the Indian and Pacific oceans’ rich treasure trove of sea creatures and hidden corrals, the oceans today make up a staggering 93 percent of the country’s entire Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).
With its far-flung former colonial outposts, France rules the roost of global EEZ rankings, followed by the US, the UK, Russia, Australia, Indonesia, Canada, and Japan. While President Macron insists his country is an Indo-Pacific power, French defence spending on the Indo-Pacific region has yet to cross US$2 million, making it dependent on partnerships with regional powers to secure its interests.
The intensity of France’s reaction to AUKUS reveals just how important the Indo-Pacific region is to Paris. So while China may have enjoyed seeing Western partners fume at one another last month, over the long haul, Beijing’s expansion into the Western Pacific puts it on a direct collision course with French core interests — something Paris is all too aware of.
Macron’s recent reframing of the AUKUS disruption as an opportunity to pitch Washington on his plans for a larger EU role in the Indo-Pacific reflects this perfectly. French diplomats returning to their posts in Washington and Canberra suggests Paris is done nursing its wounded pride and is looking to mend fences with Western allies and move forward in the spirit of pragmatism. In welcoming France back to the table, the US and Australia would be wise to better include French interests in their joint strategy, for example, by granting France greater access to Australian naval bases so it can better access and defend its vast swathes of EEZ waters.
The real threat AUKUS poses to China is not in granting Australia a powerful new deterrent, but in setting a new precedent for tech transfer and weapons sharing in the region. This is of most relevance to the Quad(s), with the original group giving rise to another emergent quadrilateral grouping of European countries — France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. The EU’s strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, released the same fateful September day AUKUS was launched, reflects how the Quad is now morphing to become a pentagonal, hexagonal, or even heptagonal security grouping.
With such an array of diplomatic groupings, virtually any combo of nuclear-powered subs could lurk in wait, hidden in the dark of the world’s deepest waters between the first island chain and the Mariana Trench, without needing to surface for a year or more. While China may have eight nuclear submarines of its own, they must fan out widely across the Indo-Pacific oceans without leaving their two carriers totally exposed.
Though China aims to have four aircraft carriers by 2025, the US is adding more to the region too, under the revamped first fleet, in tandem with the third and seventh fleets. The HMS Queen Elizabeth, a UK aircraft carrier, has also returned to the South China Sea, as have French-made submarines. Japan, which promises to defend Taiwan, has just successfully converted its Izumo destroyer into an aircraft carrier, and has plans to convert more vessels. So, while China has 350 frigates and counting, the dynamic permutation of the Quad allows the US and its allies to narrow the gap.
With the UK and US leasing subs to Australia, AUKUS will have a real impact long before 2045, denying China access to the deep seas beyond the first island chain, Straits of Malacca, the North Natuna Sea, and other chokepoints. With access to the Indian ocean squeezed, China’s room to manoeuvre is shrinking, and with its economic corridors in Myanmar and Pakistan stalling, overland alternatives are proving hazardous.
US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan was right about the primacy of sea power. Compared to the oceanic access the US, UK, and Australia have been blessed with, China is a “prisoner of geography.” Hemmed in by an unforgiving littoral of island chains and narrow straits, it is not unlike a canary in a cage hung in a traditional Beijing teahouse surrounded by patrons who languidly sip their tea below.
Liam Gibson is a Taipei-based analyst who writes on Indo-Pacific affairs for several publications in the region. He is also a Taiwan News reporter and the founder of Policy People, a podcast and newsletter platform for think tank experts.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.