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HomeGeopolitical CompassSouth & Southeast AsiaASEAN’s Responses to AUKUS: Implications for Strategic Realignments in the Indo-Pacific

ASEAN’s Responses to AUKUS: Implications for Strategic Realignments in the Indo-Pacific

Author: Mingjiang Li

Affiliation: Nanyang Technological University

Organization/Publisher: China International Strategy Review

Date/Place: November 2022/ Beijing- China 

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 20 

Link: https://link.springer.com/10.1007/s42533-022-00121-2 

Keywords: AUKUS, ASEAN Centrality, Indo-Pacific Security, US-China Strategic Rivalry

 

Brief:

The aim of this study is to examine the implications of the AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) security pact one year after its establishment. The author focuses on examining the responses from the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) because this tripartite security pact is highly influential in creating new strategic realignment in the Indo-Pacific regions, particularly in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the author examines AUKUS’s potential geo-strategic effects on Indo-Pacific security, as many observers have indicated that this agreement is akin to a regional arms race.

 

To recap the event, the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States released a joint statement in September 2021 stating that the three countries agreed to “deepen diplomatic, security, and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” with the creation of the trilateral security pact called “AUKUS.” The partnership mainly focused on increasing military and defense-related technology, but the most significant aspect was the decision to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs).

 

In response, China, viewed as the main adversary in this security partnership, criticized the new security pact, claiming that such moves would intensify tensions and arms races in the region and undermine international nuclear non-proliferation efforts. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official stated that the new security pact and the involvement of the three countries were “extremely irresponsible.”

 

On the other hand, ASEAN’s position regarding AUKUS can be understood from four perspectives. First, ASEAN has played a central role in regional security by hosting various multilateral institutions in the Indo-Pacific. Second, AUKUS prompts internal grouping within ASEAN, with members diversifying their positions on whether to support or oppose the pact. Third, AUKUS can reshape the strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific, the most heated region in the US-China competition. Fourth, the implementation of AUKUS will primarily take place in Southeast Asia, including the deployment of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines.

 

Furthermore, the author claims that ASEAN has been divided into three groups in responding to AUKUS. The first group consists of Indonesia and Malaysia, which openly expressed concern over the arms race and the risk of nuclear proliferation caused by AUKUS. However, while Indonesian officials have reflected their displeasure and concern towards AUKUS, they are still trying to maintain neutrality amidst major power competition. The Foreign Minister of Malaysia, on the other hand, has openly stated that the establishment of AUKUS could lead to an arms race in the region. 

 

The second group comprises countries that have chosen to abstain from making any open and unambiguous comments, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei, and Myanmar. The third group includes the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore, who seem to welcome the new security pact. In fact, Singapore and Vietnam stated that AUKUS would be a constructive and positive force for regional stability and peace. The Philippines supports AUKUS to address the balance of power in the South China Sea, believing that the security pact could enhance military strength in the region. Overall, due to the lack of a common stance within ASEAN, the institution’s joint diplomatic response to AUKUS has been limited. However, after one year of AUKUS’s establishment, the author argues that ASEAN member states have cautiously accepted AUKUS.

 

The question then arises as to why ASEAN, which has agreed to the role of mitigating competition between extra-regional powers since the end of the Cold War, is losing its neutrality and exhibiting varying responses to AUKUS. The author answers this question by providing three factors. First, there are perceived challenges to ASEAN’s centrality. Second, the strategic nature of AUKUS differs from ASEAN’s approach. Third, ASEAN members share views about China.

 

The establishment of AUKUS poses a significant challenge to ASEAN’s central role in mitigating major-power competition in the region, particularly with the intensifying US-China strategic rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. The establishment of AUKUS should remind ASEAN member states that the US and its allies will take a hard balancing approach in deterring China, and it also demonstrates their reluctance to work with ASEAN in dealing with China. These challenges, combined with the declining functionality of ASEAN, help explain the disunity of ASEAN in response to AUKUS.

 

Another explanation lies in the incompatibility between ASEAN and AUKUS in terms of strategic approaches. AUKUS is built on the premise of pursuing a balance of hard power and military confrontation with China, while ASEAN member states have always hedged toward China in the US-China rivalry. Therefore, it is nearly impossible for most ASEAN countries to openly support or oppose AUKUS, as it would provoke a Cold War-like scenario with major global powers in the region. For ASEAN, maintaining a balanced relationship with both the US and China is the most rational strategy to pursue in maintaining regional security in Southeast Asia.

 

Having argued that the establishment of AUKUS poses a significant challenge for ASEAN, the author turns attention to the potential geo-strategic impacts of AUKUS on Indo-Pacific security. First, while AUKUS may be seen as a positive step for Australia in terms of enhancing its military capabilities, there are strategic concerns for Australia when it comes to military confrontation with China in the region. In this scenario, Australia’s national security will be at high risk, and China will not remain idle if Australia constructs new nuclear-powered submarines. Some observers argue that China will likely have advanced anti-submarine capabilities by the time Australia acquires the SSNs. Second, the procurement of SSNs will undermine nuclear non-proliferation efforts and escalate regional insecurity. Again, in this scenario, Australia will have to navigate the complexities of dealing with nuclear regulation. Finally, the author is optimistic that AUKUS may pave the way for a regional dialogue among ASEAN states, AUKUS partners, and China to address tensions in the region and build trust. 

 

By: Salman Nugraha, CIGA Research Intern

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