Crew are seem on top of the Indian nuclear submarine Arihant. Photo: Indian Defense Ministry
The Indian nuclear submarine Arihant. Photo: Indian Defense Ministry

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is heading to the United States to participate in the first in-person Quad summit to take place later this month.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising India, Australia, Japan and the United States, has been getting a lot of media attention ever since it reconvened as a potential alliance last year. With China flexing its muscles in the Indo-Pacific region, the Quad re-emerged as a counterbalancing tool to the hegemony of China in the region.

However, this looks like only the beginning of potential Western coalitions as a response to China’s influence in the region. US President Joe Biden this week announced a new alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia known as “AUKUS” specifically focusing on the security aspect of the Indo-Pacific region.

The newly announced alliance appears to be intended a base for all three states to indulge in defense and technology cooperation and to collaborate on governing emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and cyberspace.

While India’s involvement in the Quad is needed, there are also pragmatic reasons for India to work with the AUKUS states to achieve their objectives. Modi’s first face-to-face meeting with Biden could help make India’s case for getting involved with AUKUS.

Technology warfare a threat

The Quad, when first conceived, had maritime security as one of its main focus areas. With China building up its naval capabilities throughout the last two decades, the Quad aimed to build alliances with the rest of the region in the form of joint naval exercises and investments in developing state-of-the-art naval fleets.

With critical technologies at the heart of geopolitical rivalries during the past five years, these emerging technologies remain an immense strategic asset to different states. Technology will likely be the future battleground for geopolitical dominance, with conventional warfare taking a back seat. Cyber, space and communications are emerging as potential areas of conflict between states.

AUKUS includes the United States, which is the global leader in technology innovation, but the UK and Australia remain inexperienced players in the technology domain. India, with its share in the global technology ecosystem, could provide an immense advantage in terms of both human resources and capital for cooperation in emerging technologies.

This cross-border collaboration, especially in strategic technologies, could help states in the region address the threats of attacks in the digital domain.

Asia a nuclear back yard

The region faces instability due to the number of potential nuclear powers in Asia. The threat of escalation to nuclear warfare looms large.

A flurry of activity in developing nuclear capabilities has been seen in recent times. South Korea recently tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) despite not being a nuclear state. North Korea responded by testing its own ballistic missiles, as a possible arms race develops in the Korean Peninsula.

What some observers have called China’s nuclear ambiguity and the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons reaching the hands of extremists could pose significant threats to the region.

The AUKUS alliance is expected to focus on underwater defense capabilities as a deterrence to the Chinese military presence in the region. With specific focus on developing nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, this just reaffirms Biden’s evolving foreign policy as a highly Indo-Pacific approach.

India, on the other hand, is one of the most technologically developed nuclear states in the region. It also has the distinction of being one of the first nations to undertake the development of nuclear-powered submarines. The INS Arihant, launched by India in 2009, was the first ballistic-missile submarine developed by a state other than the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

This kind of experience that India possesses in the field of underwater warfare and the proximity to the region should serve as a major incentive for AUKUS and India to collaborate on nuclear defense capabilities with a focus on security and stability in the region.

Building technical expertise

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a massive decline in globalization and international trade. Global supply chains were restructured to protect domestic economies, leading to shortages (such as the silicon-chip shortage). Protectionism was on the rise and states strove for self-sufficiency across domains. India’s own flagship project, the Aatma Nirbhar Bharat, advocates being self-reliant in all aspects.

History has shown that technological self-sufficiency remains elusive because of the number of bottlenecks in the global supply chain. However, achieving technical expertise in an area of strength can help both strategically and economically.

AUKUS aims to build an alliance that can indulge in technology cooperation across domains. The United States’ expertise in defense technology and Australia’s growing rare-earths processing industry are just two of the potential areas for technology transfer.

India can offer its own expertise in terms of evolving technologies. The low-cost space program and the booming solar and the renewable-energy industry of India can serve as a model for others. This kind of expertise could serve as a strategic asset as well as potential collaboration.

AUKUS and India could work together to build on each other’s strengths to help ease the transfer of technologies, creating a formidable technological alliance to protect the region.

AUKUS, which has only just been announced, is yet to take off as a legitimate alliance. However, the group must be open to collaboration with other emerging powers in the region on defense and technology. This could enhance the role of AUKUS and ensure meeting its original objectives.

Arjun Gargeyas

Arjun Gargeyas is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, a public policy think-tank in Bangalore.