In September this year, Australia, UK and the US announced a security pact named AUKUS, which is one of the largest defense partnerships in the last few decades. The security deal came to light in September 2021 and covers a number of areas including nuclear submarines, underwater systems, long-range strike capabilities, artificial intelligence, and cyber cooperation.
The pact will enable Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines using the US technologies. Only a handful countries so far possess nuclear submarines: US (68), Russia (29), China (12), UK (11), France (8), and India (1). Australia is going to be the seventh nation to have and operate nuclear power submarines.
The tripartite security pact has antagonised a number of powerful actors, including China. France was also taken by surprise and showed anger as it was supposed to build a number of such nuclear submarines for Australia.
A $90 billion plan to build French-designed submarines was scrapped by Australia and handed to the US and the UK, and it created diplomatic tensions between the US and France. The French foreign ministry recalled their ambassadors from the US and Australia.
France said that the way the deal was scrapped was nothing but "duplicity, disdain and lies" while Australia said that the deal was scrapped due to worsening strategic environment in the Asia and Pacific and the previous deal would not be able to address Australia's concerns.
But the pact has implications for Bangladesh as well.
There has been speculation that the pact is going to be a game changer for East Asian countries. Although the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries have mixed opinions about the nuclearisation of the Australian navy, most of them are of the opinion that the region is going to experience a new cold war in Asia.
India, another strategic partner in the geopolitical arena, is a member of the Quad, an informal maritime grouping among India, Japan, USA and Australia. Some say the creation of AUKUS diminishes the importance of Quad because it, to some experts, is no longer at the core of the United States' Indo-Pacific concerns. The AUKUS has also come as a surprise for India, and India has remained silent over this issue.
The Chinese concerns of the region becoming more prone to arms race, possibly a nuclear one, rings true. The situation is unique as two nuclear weapons states, for the first time, are helping a non-nuclear weapon state with the technology of building nuclear submarines, which have the potential to launch nuclear missiles. The NPT treaty allows nonexplosive military uses of nuclear material with some conditionalities. The geopolitical calculations are therefore not simple.
While this is the scenario, Bangladesh will find the Bay of Bengal a more contested region between these competing interests. It is to be noted that Bangladesh has only two diesel-powered kilo class submarines bought from China. China has been helping Bangladesh in building its first submarine base. Bangladesh should maintain a distance from anything that might anger China and remain strategically neutral among these competing interests.
Australia's relations with China have been sour for the last few years over the pandemic, trade disputes and regional security. Though the members in the AUKUS pact did not mention China specifically, the experts argue that the intent is lucid.
A race for controlling the Bay of Bengal, with the respective strategies, i.e. FOIP, BRI, Look East Policy, Look West Policy etc. have already been debated. China, in an unprecedented move, previously warned that Dhaka's participation in the Quad would result in substantial damage to bilateral relations between the two countries. Despite the warm bilateral relations in security and economic issues, the recent remark from Li Jiming, Chinese Ambassador in Bangladesh, took the Bangladeshi state apparatus, academia, social media, and media outlets by surprise. Bangladesh responded that this was totally uncalled for, and whether to join any security pact is essentially an internal matter of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh requested the foreign missions in Bangladesh in a polite but firm manner "to maintain decency and decorum" before making such public comments. However, the matters with AUKUS are far more serious than the Quad. The Quad has been more of a platform for expressing their political rhetoric, making it mere a talk-shop. The AUKUS partnership is more concrete and already sparked a heated debate in the academia and policy spectrum.
The deal emerged to counter the growing and assertive regional and global role of China in recent years. The pact has been seen as an initiative to deter China's growing economic might and military reach in the Asia Pacific and beyond.
The Chinese foreign ministry described AUKUS as an extremely irresponsible act and a threat to regional peace and stability, and that it augments the arms race in the region. "The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology by the United States and Britain to Australia once again proves that they use nuclear exports as a tool of geopolitical games and adopt double standards, which is extremely irresponsible."
While the pact is seen as a strengthened warning against a more assertive China, the Chinese reactions and responses indeed show a wary narrative from Beijing. China questioned whether Australia still adheres to the nuclear non-proliferation commitments after the deal. The pact has been portrayed by China as a sudden initiative characterised by the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality.
It is to be noted that about 75% of Bangladesh's total arms import was supplied by China, from 2010 to 2019. Of the total Chinese global arms export, Bangladesh accounts for about 20%, from 2015 to 2019. On the other hand, Bangladesh has comprehensive and strategic partnerships with Quad and IPS nations such as India, the USA, Japan, Australia, EU, and UK. Bangladesh must maintain its policy of friendship, engagement with all powers, and peace and non-alignment as dictated by Bangabandhu and must not jump into these geopolitical games.
The author is a Research Assistant at the Central Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS). He can be reached at email@example.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.