What Does the New AUKUS Alliance Mean for Southeast Asia?

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What Does the New AUKUS Alliance Mean for Southeast Asia?

The new partnership is likely to be greeted with ambivalence in a region that has little appetite for a new Cold War.

What Does the New AUKUS Alliance Mean for Southeast Asia?

Australian Minister of Defense Peter Dutton, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pose for a group photograph at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, September 16, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool

The newly announced military partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia – the so-called AUKUS pact – is set to have unclear but likely far-reaching implications for the future strategic balance in Asia. Perhaps the most significant part of the tripartite partnership is that it will see Australia armed with a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), which have much greater range and endurance than the eye-wateringly expensive French-built diesel sub fleet that it has replaced.

While China was not explicitly mentioned in the AUKUS announcement, it clearly signals a hardening of the U.S. position toward China, and a significant raising of the strategic stakes. Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute noted in an article yesterday that while previously there was reason to question whether Washington really desired a new “Cold War” with China, “this announcement is significant evidence that it is indeed prepared to take such a momentous step.”

From Australia’s perspective, the deal is effectively a gamble on Washington’s long-term commitment to maintaining its military supremacy in Asia. Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University likened it to the crossing of a “strategic Rubicon.” Many observers, including former Prime Minister Paul Keating and the realist scholar Hugh White, noted that in exchange for equipping Australia with SSNs, the U.S. will expect great Australian involvement in its efforts to contain China, up to and including participation in any future conflict with China.

The AUKUS alliance is also likely to have important implications for Southeast Asia, a region that lies at the center of the geographic region – the “Indo-Pacific” – that is the main focus of the new partnership. So far, the region’s governments have been tight-lipped about the announcement. Whether in public or private, there is reason to expect that their response to the new initiative will be deeply ambivalent.

It is probable that officials in some nations – particularly those facing the hard edge of China’s growing military power in the South China Sea – will be quietly supportive of the move, which will impose higher costs on any military adventurism by the Chinese. It also largely dispels, at least for the duration of the Biden presidency, the idea (always overblown) that after the debacle in Kabul, the U.S. is preparing to walk away from its allies and partners in Asia.

On the other hand, the region is likely to be disconcerted by any move that ratchets up the possibility of conflict. While AUKUS might help deter Chinese military action and reduce the likelihood of conflict, it also ensures that such a conflict would be much more devastating if it did break out. And Southeast Asia, which lies at the center of the “Indo-Pacific,” would conceivably be on the frontlines.

There will also undoubtedly be regional worries about the partnership’s impact on Southeast Asia: that it might subsume the region within a larger strategic competition, displace it from its self-claimed position of regional “centrality,” and erode its hard-won strategic autonomy.

Since the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asia’s regional bloc – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – has successfully established a central role for itself in Asia’s diplomatic architecture. As the host of large international summits like the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN has been able to exercise a degree of agency via its agenda-shaping powers, a small degree of power that has been conceded to it by larger outside powers.

But it is hardly surprising that ASEAN’s period of greatest agency coincided with the period of relative strategic calm that followed the Cold War. Whether the shibboleth of “ASEAN centrality” survives in any meaningful way the return to intense strategic competition remains to be seen. As Evan Laksmana of Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies put it, Indonesia’s  deepest fear is that the new arrangement leaves it as a “strategic spectator,” at the mercy of forces beyond its control. Much the same could be said for Southeast Asia as a whole.

“Publicly, officials are unlikely to come out strongly one way or the other,” Laksmana wrote of the likely Indonesian response to AUKUS. “We know we cannot offer a serious alternative to the regional flux. We also know that regional countries are rightly developing non-ASEAN options.”

In this sense, it is not hard to view AUKUS as at least in part an expression of American frustration with the region’s perceived strategic fence-sitting. Southeast Asian nations have been far from eager enlistees to the U.S. efforts to build a regional anti-China coalition, and for sound reason. While they have discreet points of tension with China – from maritime and territorial disputes to questions relating to Beijing’s ties to overseas Chinese diaspora communities – they benefit greatly from trade with Beijing and, increasingly, from foreign direct investment from Chinese firms.

The move is also likely to reinforce perceptions that the U.S. engagement with the region is far too heavily weighted toward security engagement, to the detriment of the other challenges facing Southeast Asian nations, from the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change to the dire economic outlook facing the region.

At a deeper level, Southeast Asian and American perceptions diverge to varying degrees on the question of exactly what threat China poses. While it fears a future of Chinese hegemony, the region has little appetite for the predominant U.S. view of its competition with China, as part of a global battle between democracy and authoritarianism, a framing that was echoed in the AUKUS announcement.

Compared to Southeast Asia, China’s reaction to AUKUS was predictable. Foreign Ministry spokesperson yesterday slammed the grouping as a reflection of “outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception” that “intensified” a regional arms race.

In addition to fulminating against the partnership, Beijing is likely to play to its main advantage over the U.S.: economics. Coincidentally, today, a day after AUKUS was announced, China filed an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The CPTPP, which was signed by 11 countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan and New Zealand in 2018, is the successor agreement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was painstakingly negotiated by the Obama administration before President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement shortly after taking office in 2017.

The move signaled the substance of Beijing’s strategic interest in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific: to deepen its economic integration with the region to such an extent that nations are pulled by sheer economic gravity into its orbit. While China’s accession to the CPTPP faces a host of obstacles, it highlights the fact that the U.S. currently finds itself on the outside of the two major Asia-Pacific trade pacts.

As Ankit Panda, the host of The Diplomat’s Asia Geopolitics podcast, noted on Twitter, “China probably won’t get into CPTPP anytime soon, but news of its formal application coming a day after the AUKUS announcement neatly underscores the continuing rift in how Washington and Beijing conceive of ‘competition’ in Asia.”