The creation of a trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, referred to as AUKUS, was announced in a joint statement on September 15. With the aim of preserving security and stability in the Indo-Pacific, the defense pact will provide Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. AUKUS also commits the three allies to cooperating on the development of critical technologies including cyber, artificial intelligence, and undersea domains.
The AUKUS joint statement confirmed the three countries’ “shared values of freedom and democracy” and desire to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has since stated that the partnership is “not intended to be adversarial” toward China. However, there can be little doubt that the motive underpinning AUKUS is to counter Chinese maritime dominance in the Indo-Pacific. China is locked in dispute with several regional states over conflicting sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. China’s militarization of these disputed islands and exploitation of maritime resources has heightened regional tensions and stifled freedom of navigation in an area of vital importance for global trade.
AUKUS is intended to compliment other regional mechanisms, including the Quad security partnership and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Southeast Asia’s ten-nation regional organization. Concerned that AUKUS might elicit a negative reaction in Southeast Asia, the Australian and U.S. ministers released a further joint statement reaffirming their continued commitment to “Southeast Asia, ASEAN centrality, and ASEAN-led architecture.”
This hasn’t prevented ASEAN states from registering their concern. Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob expressed his fear that AUKUS would “provoke other powers to act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea.” Ismail confirmed that “as a country within ASEAN, Malaysia holds the principle of maintaining ASEAN as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality.”
This view was shared by the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, which confirmed it was “very concerned about the continued arms race and projection of power in the region.” Canberra’s envoy to ASEAN Will Nankervis responded to these concerns by reiterating Australia’s commitment to ASEAN, its regional infrastructure, and the stability of Southeast Asia.
The concerns of Malaysia and Indonesia are not necessarily shared across the ASEAN bloc. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong welcomed the AUKUS arrangement, expressing hopes that it would “contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.”
The remaining ASEAN states have approached the news more cautiously. Vietnam has been careful not to comment on the partnership. Its actions speak louder than its words, however. Last month, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Hanoi, during which she denounced China’s “bullying and excessive maritime claims” in the South China Sea. Vietnam has also recently signed a defense transfer deal with Japan aimed at countering China’s maritime military influence.
Driven by different threat perceptions and geostrategic interests, it is very difficult for ASEAN to speak with one voice. AUKUS has exposed this lack of cohesion. The partnership is also symptomatic of ASEAN’s struggle to maintain regional order. ASEAN-centric platforms for security dialogue such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and East Asia Summit (EAS) have prioritized confidence building and constructive dialogue over conflict resolution.
This approach has not been sufficient to resolve intractable regional security challenges such as the South China Sea disputes. This has necessitated the creation of other security partnerships such as AUKUS and the Quad. Regional states now risk ASEAN becoming side-lined in favor of externally driven security arrangements.
Where does this leave the states of ASEAN? Many states within the institution hope to maintain a balance between China and the U.S. and its Western allies. This allows regional states to continue to reap the economic benefits of relations with China whilst benefiting from a U.S. security presence. With the creation of AUKUS, however, the status quo becomes more difficult to maintain. The U.S. is in search of regional allies, and states may be pressured to take sides. Other states welcome the security guarantees that the U.S. can provide, thus compromising ASEAN’s attempts to limit external interference in Southeast Asia.
This is exacerbated by regional powers such as Australia seeking to exert more influence in the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN provides little in the way of conflict management and cannot be relied upon as a means of resolving regional disputes. Unless the states of Southeast Asia can learn to speak with one voice on matters of regional security, ASEAN centrality will continue to be tested by actors external to the region.