US President Biden hosts Quad leaders at their first in-person summit, left to right, then-Japanese prime minster Suga Yoshihide, Indian PM Narendra Modi and Australian PM Scott Morrison in the White House on September 24, 2021, amid shared concerns about China's growing power and behavior. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

The recent Quad leaders meeting in the White House on September 24 appears to have shifted focus away from its original framing as a security dialogue among four countries, the United States, India, Japan and Australia. Instead, the US seems to be moving much closer to Australia as a strategic partner and providing it with nuclear-powered submarines.

Supplying Australia with US nuclear submarines that use bomb-grade uranium could violate the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) protocols. Considering that the United States wants Iran not to enrich uranium beyond 3.67%, this is blowing a big hole in its so-called rules-based international order – unless we all agree that the rules-based international order is in essence the US and its allies making all the rules.

Then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe initiated the idea of the Quad in 2007 as a security dialogue. In the statement issued after the first formal meeting of the Quad countries dated March 12, 2021, “security” was used in the sense of strategic security.

Before the recent meeting of the Quad, both the US and Indian sides denied that it was a military alliance, even though the Quad countries conduct joint naval exercises – the Malabar exercises – and have signed various military agreements. The September 24 Quad joint statement focuses more on other “security” issues: health, supply-chain, and cyber security.

Has India decided that it still needs to retain strategic autonomy even if it has serious differences with China on its northern borders and therefore has stepped away from the Quad as an Asian NATO? Or has the US itself downgraded the Quad now that Australia has joined its geo-strategic game of containing China?

Before the Quad meeting in Washington, the US and the UK signed an agreement with Australia to supply eight nuclear-powered submarines – the AUKUS agreement. Earlier, the US had transferred nuclear submarine technology to the UK, and it may have some subcontracting role here.

Nuclear submarines, unlike diesel-powered subs, are not meant for defensive purposes. They are for force projection far away from home. Their ability to travel large distances and remain submerged for long periods makes them effective strike weapons against other countries.

The AUKUS agreement means that Australia is canceling its earlier contract for France to supply 12 diesel-powered submarines. The French are livid that they, one of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s linchpins, have been treated this way, with no consultation by the US or Australia on the cancellation.

The US administration has followed it up with “discreet disclosures” to the media and US think-tanks that the AUKUS agreement also includes Australia providing naval and air bases to the United States. In other words, Australia is joining the US and the UK in a military alliance in the “Indo-Pacific.”

Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron had been fully on board with the US policy of containing China, and France participated in “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea. France had even offered its Pacific Island colonies and its navy for the US project of containing China in the Indo-Pacific.

France has two sets of island chains in the Pacific Ocean that the United Nations terms non-self-governing territories – read colonies – giving France a vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ), larger even than that of the United States. The US considers these islands less strategically valuable than Australia, which explains its willingness to face France’s anger. In the US worldview, NATO and the Quad are both being downgraded for a new military strategy of a naval thrust against China.

Australia has very little manufacturing capacity. If the eight nuclear submarines are to be built partially in Australia, the infrastructure required for manufacturing the ships and for producing/handling the highly enriched uranium that the US submarines use will probably require a minimum of 20 years to set up. That is the reason behind the talk of US naval and air bases in Australia, with the United States providing the submarines and fighter-bomber aircraft either on lease, or simply locating them in Australia.

I have previously argued that the term “Indo-Pacific” may make sense to the US, the UK or even Australia, which are in essence maritime nations. The optics of three maritime powers, two of which are settler-colonial, while the other, the erstwhile largest colonial power, talking about a rules-based international order do not appeal to most of the world.

Oceans are important to maritime powers, which have used naval dominance to create colonies. This was the basis of the dominance of British, French and later US imperial powers. That is why they all have large aircraft carriers: They are naval powers that believe that the gunboat diplomacy through which they built their empires still works. The US has 700-800 military bases spread worldwide; Russia has about 10; and China has only one overseas base, in Djibouti, Africa.

Behind the rhetoric about the Indo-Pacific and open seas is the US play in Southeast Asia. Here, the talk of the Indo-Pacific has little resonance. Its main interest is in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was spearheaded by the ASEAN countries. Even with the US and India walking out of the RCEP negotiations, the 15-member trading bloc is the largest in the world, with nearly 30% of the world’s GDP and population. Two of the Quad partners – Japan and Australia – are in the RCEP.

The US strategic vision is to project its maritime power against China and contest for control over even Chinese waters and economic zones. This is the 2018 US Pacific strategy doctrine that it has itself put forward, which it declassified recently. The doctrine states that the US naval strategy is to deny China sustained air and sea dominance even inside the first island chain and dominate all domains outside that chain. For those interested in how the US views the Quad and India’s role in it, this document is a good education.

The US wants to capitalize on the disputes that Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have with China over the boundaries of their respective EEZs. While some of them may look to the US for support against China, none of these Southeast Asian countries supports the US interpretation of “freedom of navigation,” under which it carries out its FONOPs. As India found to its cost in Lakshadweep, the US definition of freedom of navigation does not square with India’s, either.

For all its talk about rules-based world order, the United States has not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) either. So when India and other allies sign on to “freedom of navigation” statements of the United States, they are signing on to the US understanding of the freedom of navigation, which is at variance with theirs.

Sailing through a loophole

The 1973 Non-Proliferation Treaty created two classes of countries, those that would be allowed a set of technologies that could lead to bomb-grade uranium or plutonium, and others that would be denied these technologies. There was, however, a submarine loophole in the NPT and its complementary IAEA safeguards for the peaceful use of atomic energy.

Under the NPT, non-nuclear-weapon-state parties must place all nuclear materials under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, except nuclear materials for non-explosive military purposes. No country until now has utilized this submarine loophole to withdraw weapon-grade uranium from safeguards. If this exception is utilized by Australia, how will the US continue to argue against Iran’s right to enrich uranium, say for nuclear submarines, which is within its rights under the NPT?

India was never a signatory to the NPT, and therefore is a different case than that of Australia. If Australia, a signatory, is allowed to use the submarine loophole, what prevents other countries from doing so as well?

Australia did not have to travel this route if it wanted nuclear submarines. The French subs it was buying were originally nuclear-powered but using low-enriched uranium. It is retrofitting diesel engines that has created delays in their supplies to Australia. It appears that under the current leadership of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Australia wants to flex its muscles in the neighborhood, therefore tying up with Big Brother, the United States.

For the US, if Southeast Asia is the terrain of struggle against China, Australia is a very useful springboard. It also substantiates what has been apparent for some time now: that the Indo-Pacific is only cover for a geo-strategic competition between the United States and China over Southeast Asia.

And unfortunately for the United States, East Asia and Southeast Asia have reciprocal economic interests that bring them closer to each other. And Australia, with its brutal settler-colonial past of genocide and neocolonial interventions in Southeast Asia, is not seen as a natural partner by countries there.

India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have lost the plot completely. Does it want strategic autonomy, as was its policy post-independence? Or does it want to tie itself to a waning imperial power, the United States? The first gave it respect well beyond its economic or military clout. The current path seems more and more a path toward losing its stature as an independent player.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.