Drawing a close to the 20-year war in Afghanistan, U.S. President Joe Biden is turning his eyes on the intensifying competition with China, bringing into play new mechanisms like the "Quad" group of Australia, India, Japan and the United States as well as a security partnership among Australia, Britain and the United States.
But the Biden administration may need more clarity in its Indo-Pacific strategy, which it says will be released in the fall, with the recent launch of the three-way partnership dubbed "AUKUS" triggering a huge diplomatic rift with the oldest U.S. ally France, and questions raised over how the two coalitions will evolve.
"While there may have been some strategic thinking to link European allies and Asian allies through AUKUS, if you end up angering a very important pillar in the region, France, I must say no holistic strategy existed there," said Michito Tsuruoka, an associate professor at Japan's Keio University with expertise on international security and European politics.
The Sept. 15 announcement of the AUKUS partnership, which included an agreement to help Canberra acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, was clearly one of the highlights during the Biden administration's months-long efforts to rally allies and like-minded countries to counter China's growing assertiveness.
But the move quickly spiraled into a diplomatic crisis. France, which lost a multibillion-dollar submarine contract with Australia as a result, reacted furiously, calling the announcement "a stab in the back" by Washington and recalling its ambassadors to the United States and Australia.
Tsuruoka said it is important to note that France's outrage was not just stemming from the economic damage incurred from the cancellation of the contract, but also from the sense of having been "excluded" from the new Indo-Pacific alliance, even though Paris has served as a key driver for broader European engagement in the region.
France is the only European Union member with overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific, such as Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and New Caledonia in the Pacific.
It has a permanent military presence in the region, with more than 7,000 military personnel deployed there, while sending its warships into the South China Sea, where Beijing has been aggressively pushing its territorial claims.
Japan has also been deepening ties with France, which Tokyo views as a fellow country that shares the vision of a "free and open" Indo-Pacific. In May, Japan, the United States and France conducted their first three-way ground-troop exercise on Japanese soil.
While the U.S.-France row is not expected to lead Paris to turn its back from the region, Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that France could be "quite cool to the Quad for a little while," with Australia and the United States among the membership.
Tsuruoka said Japan can play a part to minimize any potential fallout by continuing to approach France to convey that it fully supports the European country's involvement in the Indo-Pacific.
Despite the "unintended consequences" that followed the rollout of AUKUS, Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the emergence of new mechanisms should be seen as "successes" for the Biden administration because it shows that countries are "willing to stand up to China" even though they are not explicitly framed as anti-China measures.
"The reason why countries are willing to stand up more and do things, whether that is India in the Quad or Australia in AUKUS, is because of concern about China's behavior and its challenges to the rules-based order. So I think even before they actually start doing anything, just announcing that they have this new mechanism is very significant," she added.
Green suggested that the AUKUS partnership will have a considerable impact in the regional waters in terms of power balance.
"I think the Quad countries that are not in AUKUS -- Japan and India -- are quite pleased with this because it will really for the next 50 years reset the trajectories in naval power in the Pacific and from the perspective of those countries stabilize things as China massively builds up its naval forces," he said.
But some countries in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced concerns over AUKUS as they are wary of seeing an arms race.
As the two new regional coalitions come to the fore, with Australia being an overlapping member and both groups seen to deal with challenges posed by China, countries involved have played down the possibility that the newcomer will sideline the other.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasized on Friday in Washington, where the first in-person Quad summit was held, that AUKUS and Quad are "mutually reinforcing" and that "they are not there to replace anything but to add."
Glaser suggested that, while AUKUS is focused on defense technology sharing and strengthening deterrence, the Quad is more likely to pursue non-military initiatives, given that countries such as India, the only member among the four that shares a land border with China, and Japan, which has close economic ties with China, are unlikely to want the group to behave too antagonistically toward Beijing.
Given that the Biden administration is hoping to cooperate with China where possible in areas such as climate change, it is "smart" to frame Quad as a group focused on "positive" agendas such as providing coronavirus vaccines to Southeast Asia, Glaser said.
But the future course of the Quad may also change depending on China's behavior, she said.
"If China is taking more threatening actions against Japan and Australia and India, I think we will actually see more willingness for countries to do things. So it is in part dependent on China," she added.
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