Indo-Pacific nations are sitting on a powder keg

CALIFORNIA MEETING (From left) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, United States President Joe Biden and United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hold a news conference during the Aukus summit at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California on Monday, March 13, 2023. AFP PHOTO

THE alliance of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, or Aukus, has revealed a plan to launch a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific region as part of its deterrent shield against China.

Under the long-term strategy, the US will build the subs, the UK will provide the reactors, and Australia will furnish the crews.

The SSN Aukus, as the sub's prototype will be christened, can carry out long-range strikes against the enemy.

The perceived foe, of course, is China, which British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said “represents a challenge to the world order,” as it steps up its quest to become the dominant economic and military force in Asia.

US President Joe Biden, apparently anticipating that China would be incensed over the submarine deal, offered a lame assurance that the agreement was more about securing stability in the Indo-Pacific.

“I don't view what we're doing as a challenge to anybody,” Biden said.

Beijing, however, is not biting the Biden line, and has warned that Aukus is “going down a dangerous road” and “risking a new arms race and nuclear proliferation.”

The ramped-up rhetoric could further fuel the volatility in the Indo-Pacific that has been building since the US' decision to develop a more robust presence in Asia. The “Asia pivot” includes strengthening security linkages with its traditional allies to blunt China's expansionist moves.

China, however, is prepared to defend its so-called sphere of influence in the region against foreign intrusion. Xi Jinping, who has won an unprecedented third term as China's president, has announced a bigger budget for the military. The People's Liberation Army has already added hypersonic missiles to its arsenal, and the country's navy continues to militarize reefs, islets and other features in the South China Sea.

All these developments reinforce fears that the Indo-Pacific could be the scene of the next Cold War, a state in which the provocation stops short of an actual conflict.

In October 1962, the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union almost triggered a nuclear war. President John F. Kennedy had ordered a naval “quarantine” of Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from bringing in materials for missile bases being built on the island-nation. During the crisis' high point, US forces were placed on Defcon 2, one level below the highest alert. Only 11th-hour negotiations between Washington and Moscow prevented a global catastrophe.

Nobody wants a similar scenario in the Indo-Pacific, most of all the dozens of countries in the region. One of them, the Philippines, has been walking a tightrope, trying to keep its balance amid the push and pull exerted by the superpowers.

The administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has allowed the US to pre-position troops and military equipment in designated Philippine bases. At the same time, it has aligned Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects to its own Build, Build, Build infrastructure program.

Other states, however, have varying degrees of engagement with the US or China, making it more difficult to forge an agreement for regional peace and security. That is the challenge the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has so far failed to overcome. While the regional bloc may have succeeded to some extent in establishing trade rules that benefit its members, it has been stymied by the diversity in alignments with outside forces from making a united stand in establishing a rules-based order.

According to a paper published by the Griffith University in Australia, there is a contest for “strategic narrative” raging in the Indo-Pacific. “It is a contest of leadership, influence and ideas, whereby success is ultimately demonstrated through the ability to set the political agenda, while also framing the rules and terms of compliance for that agenda…”

Whoever is setting the agenda, the bottom line is that no one wants a war to erupt in the Indo-Pacific. The economic and political repercussions are far too disruptive and devastating.

The main protagonists, however, are willing to play a protracted game of brinkmanship, and that's not a situation Indo-Pacific countries relish.

It would be like sitting on a powder keg, hoping no one will light the fuse.

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