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Indo-Pacific Security Micro-Alliances: Cooperation or Counterbalancing?

This article has been co-published with European Guanxi.


The creation of the AUKUS trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and United States in September 2021 has once again underlined the importance of alliances in addressing cross-cutting challenges that define the complex security environment of the Indo-Pacific region. AUKUS, however, represents only one of the most recent developments in the region, another being the meeting of the QUAD, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States earlier in March of this year. This article examines the nature of both of these alliances as tools for deepening regional collaboration or as counter-balancing strategies against China and other relevant alliances. By extension, it provides a first-hand look at the potential for either of these alliances to serve as the basis for long-term planning for relevant security actors in the Indo-Pacific.

QUAD & AUKUS: The Case for Cooperation

The creation of the QUAD itself may be seen as the result of non-China-related cooperation. It is often seen as a continuation of humanitarian collaboration between the four participating states the US, Australia, India, and Japan in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is credited with proposing the creation of an alliance based on the democratic identity of the four collaborating nations. His original alliance proposal was modelled on the Democratic Peace Theory, according to which democracies are less likely to enter into conflict with each other. Abe’s vision included the creation of an “Asian Arc of Democracy”, as Abe put it: a group of countries that cooperate based on shared democratic values, aiming to maintain peace in the region (Smith, 2021). From this it could be inferred that the aim of the QUAD alliance was cooperation among its members and with third nations, to spread these democratic values independent of China’s regional strategy.

Furthermore, since the QUAD was restarted in 2017, cooperation through this alliance has expanded beyond traditional security matters, as well as beyond the four “official” members: in 2020 and 2021, the quad has convened on multiple occasions to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and global health, along with representatives from Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand. The results of these meetings include the decision to establish networks and partnerships in various climate-related areas (White House Briefing Room, 2021a). This illustrates the willingness of participating states to collaborate in other areas regardless of whether China is present or not.

The creation of AUKUS, on the other hand, stemmed not from prior collaboration, but from the Australian petition for help in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. Nonetheless, the Joint Statement that announced the creation of AUKUS announced that the alliance “will help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific” (White House Briefing Room, 2021b). This statement could provide a basis for an expansion of areas of cooperation similar to that of the Quad. Furthermore, the AUKUS has an advantage vis-á-vis the Quad: the formal nature of the alliance. Formal agreements based on treaties or similar documents that explicitly state cooperation objectives and commitments generally result in higher involvement, as the contribution of each participant is clearly stated, allowing for increased accountability. In the case of AUKUS, this could be conducive to increased cooperation regardless of China and its activities, as commitments and collaboration must be planned beforehand in order to include it in the alliance documents. In fact, China itself has spoken out against the alliance, but has yet to take any kind of sanction-based action against it, which differs from t its usual strategy (Deng, 2021).

QUAD & AUKUS: The Case for Balancing

Still, given China’s position of regional geopolitical and economic dominance, coupled with the QUAD revival’s rather convenient timing, it is entirely natural to question whether the decision to deepen security dialogues with other, non-China security actors in the Indo-Pacific was simply a strategic move to counterbalance China’s influence in the region. While, perhaps strikingly, the QUAD Leaders’ Joint Statement on “The Spirit of the Quad” (White House Briefing Room, 2021d) made no direct mention of China whatsoever, the content of the summit itself appears to tell a different story.

Following the conclusion of the virtual summit on March 12, 2021, Australia, Japan, India, and the US announced the formation of a Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group that will work to ‘facilitate cooperation to ensure that technology standards are governed by shared interests and values’, and ‘to explore cooperation on 5G deployment and diversification of equipment suppliers, in close cooperation with the private sector and industry’ (Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2021a, emphasis added). This initiative, in turn, came on the heels of Australia, India, and Japan’s ‘Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI)’ (Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2021b) and US President Joe Biden’s ‘Executive Order on America’s Supply Chains’, signed into effect on 24 February 2021 (White House Briefing Room, 2021e). Although somewhat different in the nature of their target strategies, both moves from QUAD members share an emphasis on the need for ‘diverse’ supply chains in order to avoid drastic supply chain disruptions.

While these moves may independently read simply as auxiliary measures to protect against potential drastic and untimely supply chain disruptions, it is important to keep in mind that they have been made in a global commodity market, wherein China represents a major producer and trading partner with several Indo-Pacific countries. Given the tendency of China’s leadership to move toward classically realist, politics-first decision-making, it is perhaps unsurprising that, as the threat of geopolitical rivalry heightens, so too does pessimism regarding the long-term sustainability of China-dependent value supply chains. As managing director and senior policy analyst at Longview Global Dewardric McNeal said at a CNBC Technology Executive Committee Town Hall:

"Telling me how to allocate is bad for a…CEO. Telling me where I need to locate is bad. So I’m concerned we have a real train wreck coming even when we get beyond some of the short-term stuff. The man-made stuff, the political stuff, I don’t know if industry is quite prepared to really understand how bad it is going to get between Washington and Beijing" (quoted in Rosenbaum, 2021).

Thus, although the QUAD has generally employed cooperative and collaboration-centric language to describe the Dialogue and its aims for the coming years, a closer look at the developments and timing of the QUAD sheds new light on an interpretation of the dialogue as yet another balancing move by non-China actors to check China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.

The case for AUKUS as a balancing strategy, on the other hand, is less nuanced. Not only does the new security pact reflect the highly militarized nature of the Indo-Pacific region, but by bringing together Australia, the US, and the UK, it emphasises the strategic relevance of the Indo-Pacific and the need for a ‘united front’ consisting of countries with shared values and interests in the region. In short, by engaging in a security agreement between powerful actors in international politics, the AUKUS countries appear to illustrate both the imperative and potential for further participation by geopolitical powers in the region.

Implications for the Indo-Pacific: The Sustainability of Micro-Alliances

The appearance of parallel “micro-alliances” in the style of the QUAD and AUKUS has triggered various debates regarding Indo-Pacific security. The question of alliance compatibility is often raised, as the proliferation of security agreements may force participating states to pick and choose. ASEAN has been one of the main forums in which to discuss Indo-Pacific security matters during the last decades. The Quad and AUKUS have each released statements reiterating their “strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality”, and to ““Southeast Asia, ASEAN centrality, and ASEAN-led architecture”, respectively (White House Briefing Room, 2021c; House of Commons Library, 2021), but this has not yet resulted in the development of comprehensive systems of alliance cooperation and coordination.

A second concern, specifically in relation to AUKUS, is its impact on non-proliferation. Australia would be the first non-nuclear state to buy or build nuclear-fuelled submarines. Naval reactors in non-nuclear states are perceived as a loophole of the Non-proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards, where the state could divert the nuclear materials for unsupervised weapons production (Acton, 2021). This is not to say that Australia will engage in such an activity. However, it is choosing to set a precedent which could be exploited by other states in the future, rather than leading non-nuclear states by example and attempting to close the loophole.

Lastly, the fact that it is unclear whether these micro-alliances objective of cooperation or counterbalancing could impact their effectiveness in the long term. The appearance of such a variety of regional groups indicates a desire for regional integration, which has beenhampered by factors such as high regional diversity, historical political tensions, and the desire to protect national interests (Sakakibara & Yamakawa, 2003). However, if these groupingsare created with the sole aim of balancing Chinese influence in the region in mind, they are likely to fade away when this aim is achieved or no longer becomes feasible, instead of providing a basis for sustained regional integration and cooperation.

Implications for the EU: Too Many Questions, Not Enough Answers

Despite the EU’s initial ‘disgruntled’ reaction to the announcement of the AUKUS partnership, specifically from France which perceived the move as a ‘stab in the back’ (House of Commons Library, 2021, 9-12), the jury is still out on the implications of AUKUS on the EU’s envisioned role in the Indo-Pacific. After all, what the AUKUS security pact, as well as the QUAD, means for the EU’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific depends quite heavily upon which interpretation – cooperative or competitive – of these new international alliances appears to hold true.

If the QUAD and AUKUS are primarily cooperative, and exist to emphasise the imperative for greater inter-state cooperation to minimize the risks of inter-state competition (in the way that Democratic Peace Theory expects, for example), then one might argue that the EU’s status as a large economic power, irrespective of its limited military capabilities, will provide it with just the needed leverage to encourage regional integration and greater strategic influence and representation for non-China countries in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China. In other words, the more deals and alliances created at the negotiating table, the more seats there appear to be for interested parties.

If, however, the QUAD and AUKUS are primarily seen as balancing moves made to compete with and counterbalance against the rising influence of China, then it is unclear whether the EU, in its present state, has enough assets to buy a seat at the table. The discussion of the QUAD provided here suggests that the economic balancing strategy of the QUAD members is to diversify commodity suppliers to limit dependence on China-specific supply value chains. Here, the EU’s economic leverage as a major trading partner in/with the Indo-Pacific serves as a great asset with which it might launch itself into the pantheon of powerful and relevant geopolitical actors in the region. On the other hand, however, AUKUS is a security pact centered around a trilateral collaboration between the UK, Australia, and the US to produce new nuclear-powered submarines. In other words, it is not simply a dialogue, but a provisional services agreement with expected deliverables. Thus, the EU’s status as a large economic power would appear to be insufficient to render it a relevant security actor in the region. After all, if AUKUS is indeed a competitive strategy, it may be one with a very clear lesson: in a highly militarized region like the Indo-Pacific, despite the wealth of potential economic arrangements that might mitigate the threat of inter-state violence, the only real protection against militaristic aggression is militaristic defence.


Often, in analysis, we are inclined to draw a conclusion regarding which of two or more claims, interpretations, propositions, etc. appears to be the most accurate. This can indeed be a useful tool in improving our understanding of a particular issue area by allowing the reader to clearly identify the arguments for and against a particular approach or understanding. Nonetheless, in the current article, no such effort has been made. This is primarily because the aim of this piece has not been to tackle the ‘big questions’ about security and geopolitics more generally, but to discuss what the QUAD and AUKUS developments might represent and mean for students of and actors in the Indo-Pacific region. AUKUS and the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy being only in their infancy, and the QUAD arrangement only now hitting its stride vis-à-vis strategy formation with respect to China, our answers to those ‘big questions’ might arrive sooner than we think. All that’s left for now then is to watch and see.



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