They say that the pen is mightier than the sword, but the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia must have missed the memo. Perhaps these countries would benefit from hearing the proverb in more modern terms: The checkbook is mightier than the nuclear submarine.
This week, President Biden joined Prime Minister Johnson of the UK and Prime Minister Morris of Australia in announcing their new trilateral plans to expand the nuclear submarine fleet of Australia and share military intelligence. The oddly named "AUKUS" is an expected move; Biden promised to combat China using like-minded allies in the region. However, without the buy-in of the nations they are attempting to defend, the plan will be nothing more than an expensive way to escalate tensions in the region.
Military power alone cannot counter China.
Zhao Lijian of the Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized the agreement, saying the three nations should "do more that is conducive to regional peace and stability and development". While any statement from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) should be taken with some healthy skepticism, Zhao has a point. Why isn't the United States doing more to help the region?
In the past two years, the Western powers have begun to take the threat of China in the Indo-Pacific more seriously. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited Palau to establish diplomatic relations and agreed to a military base on the island. Congress established a committee focused on the South Pacific in 2019, and the United States has established a trilateral alliance in the region as of yesterday.
Western powers have also committed their fair share of blunders. No Western power even tried to stop Kiribati and the Solomon Islands from taking Chinese aid and changing their tunes on Taiwan (they no longer recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation). The Pacific Islands Forum ended in complete disaster after France and Australia broke from decorum and elected a new secretary. The decision by the United States and India to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership decreased their economic ties in the region. Finally, the U.S.-China summit in Alaska completely failed to provide anything of substance, deepening the divide between the two powers.
The only successful countering the West has done has been military in nature. Diplomacy hasn't just taken a back seat; it has actively exacerbated the situation.
There's no surprise that nations in the region look to China for aid and support; it's the only option. Australia offered grants to smaller nations in the area but still acted as a mother-state, requiring the money to be spent in specific sectors, claiming to know more about the country than itself. The United States is currently offering small grants as part of the COVID-19 recovery package in the region, but only to organizations with Western ties. China provides loans and grants without earmarks. Western ideals like democracy are popular in the region, but Western powers have closed their wallets and rolled up the red carpet on the small countries whose interests they claim to represent.
Until the United States opens up financing and support to these small nations, their only path to further development will be through China. The G7 promised a program to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, as of yet, nothing has been announced.
Similar to efforts in Palau, continuing to establish relations will be vital in countering expanding Chinese influence. AUKUS is a military agreement that will undoubtedly make the Chinese try harder in the region; however, the United States, UK, Australia, Japan, India, and New Zealand should be making dozens of other diplomatic and financial agreements.
Toph Cottle is a master’s student at the University of London SOAS Student and Johns Hopkins University focusing on international affairs and economics.