In the power struggle of the Indo-Pacific region, the world has now witnessed the formation of a new trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) namely AUKUS. The purpose of this deal is to concentrate on military capabilities, distinguishing it from the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing cooperation, which also includes New Zealand and Canada. This pact is crucial because the US has only shared its nuclear submarine technology with the UK, but now Australia is also added to the list. The move was announced on 15 September in a virtual meeting and resulted in the scuttling of a $60 billion defence contract of France with Australia. It resulted in the withdrawal of the French ambassadors to the US and Australia. The formation of AUKUS undermines the geopolitical order around ASEAN and creates concerns regarding ASEAN’s centrality.
AUKUS has acted as a precedent at a time of geopolitical competition, highlighting the importance of security, and strengthening the US influence with its Five Eyes partnership. Also, it has contributed to the strengthening of other minilateral groups in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) comprised of India, Japan, the US, and Australia formed in 2007. In the recent joint QUAD summit, first in person since the pandemic, QUAD leaders reiterated its broad vision of work in areas including COVID-19 vaccines, QUAD infrastructure, climate change, technology, and free trade. During a special briefing, Indian Foreign Secretary Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla responded by saying that “(AUKUS) is neither relevant to the QUAD, nor will it have any impact on its functioning”. A preview report of the QUAD summit by senior administration officials called the QUAD an informal grouping with no security or military measures to it. However, US alliances are more significant for what they do not say. There is officially no mention of China as a threat, be it the information or statements of QUAD or AUKUS pact, except for the South China Sea. To strip out the China element, from a communication standpoint, is an attempt to bring down the geopolitical temperature. Under Biden’s administration, the strategic shift tends to focus on the Asia Pacific sphere to counter China.
However, in reality, AUKUS and QUAD are complementary to each other. The two major powers, the US and China, are constantly juggling to escape the Thucydides Trap. The Anglosphere pact intensifies the growing US-China rivalry with two visible US Indo-Pacific strategies. Firstly, the AUKUS pact has shown the US autonomous capabilities in forming an alliance based merely on defence grounds, posing a major deterrence to China. Secondly, a powerful expansion of QUAD tent against China’s assertiveness. AUKUS has set off alarm bells not only in China but in ASEAN as well.
The nuclear submarine deal will require nearly a decade to be operationalised. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries need to find a balancing position managing the containment.
The geopolitical and geoeconomic weight is shifting from the west to the east. ASEAN countries situated at the centre of the QUAD accompany huge economic and strategic potential for the US. Even though the group’s ten-member nations are mostly tiny, ASEAN overall has the world’s fourth-largest economy following the US, China, and Japan. Furthermore, except for China, ASEAN has had higher economic growth than any other area and its economy is anticipated to expand further.
AUKUS has simultaneously compelled the Southeast Asian countries to choose poles each with their own interest. Countries like Malaysia, and Indonesia have expressed concerns over the implication of the Australian Nuclear Submarine deal resulting in an arms race. Whereas the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam consider this a positive development for peace and stability.
Several ASEAN countries have territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea causing greater friction within the members. As of now, there is no joint ASEAN consensus. It can be said that the ASEAN members are divided on political grounds but united in economic terms. The issue for ASEAN is to find a way to coexist with the new Western alliance that has been forged on the front lines. ASEAN with all its lacking capabilities is still indispensable to the major powers. One cannot go against ASEAN centrality and must express public support. Likewise, the US ambassador to Indonesia Sung Kim expressed the support of the three AUKUS allies to ASEAN centrality. In this way, the US is publicly supporting ASEAN supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region and encircling China in the ASEAN region at the same time.
However, the nuclear submarine deal will require nearly a decade to be operationalised. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries need to find a balancing position managing the containment. They need to realise that the coming years are going to be completely different from the past years when the US was more occupied in the Middle East and other parts of the world thus allowing ASEAN to focus on integration and economic development. It is high time for ASEAN to reposition itself and fully comprehend the magnitude of strategic transformation in the region. Likewise, for AUKUS to play a developmental role, the members need to reappraise the ASEAN role. They should support ASEAN centrality, its agenda, and priorities per its outlook. A verifiable transparent model of AUKUS with ASEAN at the centre to ensure strategic communication and stability is another confidence-building measure. Given that AUKUS and the QUAD are essentially responses to China’s growing military transformation, ASEAN will now have to undergo a fundamental change, to cope proactively in terms of security issues.