Is China getting edgy with ‘AUKUS’ enlarging footprint in the Indo-Pacific?

 With Japan showing its keenness to join the AUKUS which is being led by the US, Australia, and the UK for the Indo-Pacific region, China, rattled by Tokyo’s planned move, has expressed its concern, stating that any attempt to “enlarge and upgrade the trilateral security initiative will represent a step in a more dangerous direction.”

The US administration under President Joe Biden, which has proposed a $895.2 billion defence budget for fiscal 2025 with an aim to bolster Indo-Pacific strategy to deter China, has asked Britain and the UK to collaborate with Japan on defence technology under the AUKUS security partnership, Nikkei Asia said.

This development has occurred close on the heels of reports which suggest that the Japanese government supports AUKUS efforts in the Indo-Pacific region and is looking at how to deepen cooperation with the US, the UK and Australia.

The matter would be broached between Japan and the US when Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida undertakes a state visit to Washington DC on April 10.

According to Nikkei Asia, US President Biden is aiming to reach an agreement with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida on AUKUS during the latter’s visit to America next month. And if this happens, Japan would be the first country outside of the three partners to work under the AUKUS framework since it was launched three years ago.

Taking it as a deliberate move to upset its plan in the region, China said, “This is typical Cold-War mentality. It will increase the risk of nuclear proliferation, exacerbate the arms race in the Asia-Pacific and undermine peace and stability in the region. China and many other countries in the region are gravely concerned and oppose this.”

Established in September 2021, AUKUS has two objectives: First, it aims to provide Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines; Second, it focuses on enhancing defence capabilities through AI, undersea drones, and hypersonic and electronic warfare technologies.

Japan, which has planned a record $290 billion as defence outlays for five years, beginning from fiscal 2023, wants to have partnership with AUKUS in the field of advanced capabilities—all this to realise a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” AFP quoted an official of Australia-based Japan embassy as saying.

Yet, what is unnerving China is the US Department of Defence’s request for a separate fund of $500 million under its Pacific Deterrence Initiative to replenish weapons for Taiwan to fight off Beijing-led aggression.  

This latest move of the US together with Japan’s keenness to have defence collaboration with AUKUS is expected to impart a significant thrust to Washington DC’s move to enhance deterrence capabilities of its allies in the region, where China has augmented its aggressive posturing in the recent past.

It has already built up and militarised many of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea. It is developing a new airstrip on Triton Island, the southernmost and westernmost of the Paracel Islands, known in Chinese as the Xisha Islands. The airstrip on Triton Island on completion will become 4th of the total seven human-made islands which have been militarised by China with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets in the South China Sea, the Associated Press said. The airstrip which is being developed at Triton Island, would be more than 600 metres (2,000 feet) in length, long enough to accommodate turboprop aircraft and drones.

In comparison to other runaways already developed by China on the Spratly Islands, including on its Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, the airstrip being built at Triton Island of the Paracel Islands is much shorter, South China Morning Post said. However, apart from such developments, China has deployed a greater number of Coast Guard ships and maritime militia in the South China Sea, East Asia Forum (EAF), an Australia-based platform dedicated to security and international relations related articles said.

To further beef up its naval capabilities in the region, China is likely to commission a third aircraft carrier called the Fujian aircraft carrier in 2025. It will be the largest warship, with a displacement of more than 80,000 tonnes. It can carry around 60 to 70 fighter jets and early-warning aircraft–at least 50% more than Liaoning aircraft carrier, a refurbished Ukrainian carrier, and the Shandong, China’s first home-grown warship, Nikkei Asia said.

China claims that it resorts to enhancing its military capabilities in the region to “resolutely respond to any countries’ attempt to violate Beijing’s sovereign rights and interests” in South and East China Seas and the Taiwan Strait, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said. However, facts on the ground suggest that Beijing has increased its hegemonic activities in the region where it, using military power, tries to usurp territories that belong to sovereign nations of Southeast Asia and East Asia.

In view of all this, the planned trilateral summit between the US, Japan, and the Philippines in Washington DC in April, assumes high significance. The US had held a trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea at Camp David in August last year. The summit had led the three countries to deepen the scale and scope of trilateral security cooperation between them in the Indo-Pacific and the Korean Peninsula.

It is felt that the planned US, Japan, and the Philippines meeting next month will see more vigorous arrangement between the three countries on the security front. Along with Japan, the Philippines which had welcomed AUKUS when it was launched in 2021 may enter into an agreement with the US over the trilateral security initiative for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.