Wednesday’s announcement by the leaders of Australia, the UK, and the US about forming a new trilateral military alliance (AUKUS) that’s strongly implied to be predicated on “containing” China must have come as a shock to India, which was unexpectedly excluded from this bloc. Those three Anglo-American countries will cooperate on Artificial Intelligence (AI), cyber, long-range strike capabilities, quantum computing, and underwater systems. AUKUS flagship project is the UK and US promise to produce a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, which will place their continent-sized island ally in an exclusive club.
Australia and the US are part of the Quad alongside India and Japan. Yet, those two Asian allies don’t have the same privileged military-technological cooperation with Washington as Canberra does. This is despite India signing several so-called “foundational agreements” with America to lay the basis for more comprehensive collaboration in those fields.
The Quad will hold its first-ever in-person meeting on 24 September, when the leaders of its three Eastern Hemispheric members will travel to the US. Prime Minister Modi will likely seek answers from his American and Australian counterparts about India’s exclusion from this bloc.
The most likely explanation is that this was punishment for his government’s decision to remain committed to its contentious S-400 air defense deal with Russia that prompted intense criticism from America and even sanctions threats in recent years. Washington is worried that New Delhi’s employment of this equipment could allow Moscow to somehow or another obtain confidential information about American military wares in the country. US officials have previously said that India’s commitment to the deal will limit their countries’ military cooperation, which in hindsight can be interpreted as predicting India’s exclusion from AUKUS.
As it presently stands, India regards China as perhaps the greatest comprehensive threat to its national security, which is why it’s recently sought to de facto ally with America in order to contain the People’s Republic. This historically unprecedented geostrategic shift has come with certain reputational costs. This prompted observers to wonder about the future of Indian-Russian relations since it was clear that the US would eventually impose zero-sum ultimatums on this historic partnership. Its sanctions threats against India for its desire to procure S-400 air defense systems from Russia are a case in point proving this prediction’s veracity.
To India’s credit, it’s thus far remained loyal to its historical ally but apparently thought that its geostrategic importance to America vis-a-vis their shared interest in “containing” China would result in the US issuing a sanctions waiver for this equipment and thus continuing to prioritize military-technological cooperation with its new South Asian partner. As can be seen, by India’s exclusion from AUKUS, events didn’t play out as expected, and India is now the US’ junior partner in the Quad instead of an equal ally like it always thought that it was. This objective observation harms the rising power’s prestige and might prove embarrassing for the ruling BJP.
After all, one of the reasons why India has yet to agree to a speculative set of “mutual compromises” with China for normalizing their relations and restoring substance to their now-mostly superficial “strategic partnership” is its fear that this would institutionalize its so-called “junior status” vis-a-vis Beijing. Alas, while Indian-Chinese ties remain complicated, there’s now no doubt that India is actually the US’ junior partner after AUKUS proved that America prioritizes privileged military-technological cooperation with Canberra instead of with New Delhi. This newly established strategic hierarchy reduces India’s strategic importance to the US.
To be clear, however, Indian-US relations will likely remain relatively solid and might even continue to improve due to their shared interests in “containing” China. Nevertheless, New Delhi might never trust Washington as much as before after being embarrassed by its ally as a result of the US’ exclusion of India from AUKUS and subsequent de facto institutionalization of the South Asian state’s junior partner status within the Quad. In response, India might double down on its privileged military-technological cooperation with Russia in order to give the US a proverbial taste of its own medicine and show that New Delhi always has other options.
The emerging scenario is that India could seek to restore balance to its multi-alignment policy by using Russia as a military-strategic counterweight for avoiding disproportionate dependence on the US. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was likely out of its loyalty to Moscow that New Delhi wasn’t invited to participate in AUKUS, so it makes sense for the South Asian state to prioritize that vector of its balancing act going forward after having already paid a partial cost it by not being allowed to join that new alliance. However, in hindsight, it’s probably for the best that India isn’t part of AUKUS since that would have dramatically worsened ties with China.
By remaining outside of this alliance, India can restore its international reputation as a neutral actor in Asia and reassure China that their intense rivalry with one another is still manageable as long as both parties have the political will to regulate it, perhaps through their shared Russian ally’s mediation. China might have considered it crossing a red line if India joined that nuclear-connected pact, so hope still remains for normalizing relations between them in the coming future since that didn’t happen. For this reason, while some in India might loathe their country’s exclusion from AUKUS, it might actually be a blessing in disguise.