The ASEAN countries are looking at the new AUKUS alliance with concern, as most fear this will lead to heightened power rivalry in the region
An emergency meeting of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers (AMM) on 15 October sought to restore order in its ranks. It focused on the recalcitrance of Myanmar to abide by the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus of August. The AMM did not attempt to bridge the conflicting views on the Australia-UK-USA(AUKUS) alliance. These show immense divergence amongst a generally well-knit ASEAN community.
The AUKUS is an effort by the US to engage Australia in a deeper defence relationship. The UK pivot to Asia currently sees the deployment of its carrier battle group in the region. It buttresses this new military alliance. Australia believes that its dependence on seaborne trade requires an augmentation of its naval capabilities through the AUKUS partnership. Australia was conscious enough that on 20 September, it issued a statement on its commitment to ASEAN centrality. It reassured ASEAN that, as its oldest dialogue partner (DP), it was appreciative of ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific outlook. It also denied that AUKUS was a defence alliance, allaying ASEAN’s concerns. It took pains to emphasise its commitment to abide by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), even though it would acquire US nuclear-powered submarines without nuclear weapons. This was to assuage ASEAN’s concerns regarding the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (SEANWFZ), established through the 1997 Bangkok Treaty.
Australia believes that its dependence on seaborne trade requires an augmentation of its naval capabilities through the AUKUS partnership.
It reiterated its support to the principles of ASEAN centrality, inclusivity, transparency, openness, good governance, a rules-based order and offered to continue cooperation on maritime issues, connectivity, SDGs, and economic development. Australia accepted its obligations under the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) of 1976, which it signed in 2005. As a member of the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and dialogue partner of ASEAN, Australia was nimble in its efforts to persuade ASEAN that they need not have any anxiety on account of AUKUS.
However, ASEAN member states are concerned. Though they did not discuss it at the AMM on 15 October, it is likely that the role of AUKUS and its impact on regional security will be discussed in the forthcoming ASEAN and EAS fora.
For ASEAN, its centrality leads it to believe that it is a key player in the decision-making and the future of the region. For many years, when big power contention in the region was low, there was no challenge to this centrality. With aggressive Chinese intent, mainly towards ASEAN countries, but also towards India and Japan, this balance of power was disrupted. ASEAN could not find a way to recreate the balance. Neither has it succeeded in concluding a code of conduct with China on the South China Sea.
The rise of partnerships in the region, which are not ASEAN-centric causes them concern. The first was the Quad, all of whom are DPs of ASEAN and members of the EAS, and now he AUKUS is yet another grouping which is not ASEAN-centric. All the members are also DPs of ASEAN, with the UK being recently rewarded by ASEAN with a separate DP from the EU.
The ASEAN sees the enunciation of the AUKUS pact as increasing the geopolitical risks in the region, as the AUKUS is aimed at countering rising Chinese belligerence. While the Quad II summit actually reached out to ASEAN to reassure it in a functional manner, the AUKUS disrupted that train of thought by pricking the balloon of ASEAN centrality and the notion of its power in the region. It brought attention to the strategic paralysis of ASEAN, which is disguised as strategic autonomy.
It was expected to speak up for the principles of ASEAN and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) if any power altered the situation.
Given the matrix of ASEAN and its consensus-based decision-making, it was seen as a functional organisation without any strategic intent. It was expected to speak up for the principles of ASEAN and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) if any power altered the situation. Now the AUKUS shows that the Wayang of the Indo-Pacific has firmly brought big power rivalry to their shores.
They have not reacted in unison. Brunei did not speak about it nor convene an informal consultation on this. Therefore, each member expressed its own views. The divergence in opinion was quite apparent.
Indonesia expressed caution with AUKUS on 17 September. ‘Indonesia is deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region’ and reminded the commitments made under the NPT, TAC, and UNCLOS. The statement focused on the nuclear submarines; otherwise, it could very well be relevant to China as well! Indonesia itself is planning to increase its submarine fleet to 12, though not nuclear powered. Australian PM Morrison called the Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, to explain the AUKUS. Earlier this month, Australia and Indonesia held their 2+2 of Foreign and Defence ministers. Indonesia saw AUKUS as something they were unaware of and which may upset the balance in the region. Indonesia has a good bilateral engagement with Australia and a trilateral with India is being developed.
Similarly, Malaysia too appears astonished and caught in a civet trap. While worried about power competiton in the region, it too talked about nuclear submarines. It hopes for an ASEAN consensus on the AUKUS! In October, Malaysia was again protesting about Chinese ships encroaching its waters but it prefers that other powers don’t enhance the power equation even if ASEAN may struggle with China.
Singapore along with Malaysia is in a Five-Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) with UK, Australia, and New Zealand since 1971 and is more welcoming. PM Morrison called PM Lee Hsien Loong to promptly brief him. For Singapore, the larger US-China rivalry is a cause for major concern. FM Balakrishnan told the media after the UNGA, “AUKUS …was not really the centrepiece of concern. The real strategic question remains the relationship between the US and China, and how they manage this strategic realignment, rebalancing and recalibration of that relationship.”
Malaysia was again protesting about Chinese ships encroaching its waters but it prefers that other powers don’t enhance the power equation even if ASEAN may struggle with China.
Vietnam has been more open to AUKUS. Their spokesman said “All countries strive for the same goal of peace, stability, cooperation, and development in the region and the world over” and nuclear power can be harnessed for development. Former Vietnam Ambassador Ton Nu Thi Ninh has noted that “ASEAN welcomes a lasting, steady commitment of the US to the security, stability, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific” and “the best moderation to any singular pre-eminence in the Indo-Pacific is to have several powers or power clusters engaged rationally and in concert with regional stakeholders, working for the common peace, security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific”. Vietnam shows greater pragmatism and sense of balancing power through AUKUS and Quad. It recognises the limits on an ASEAN role too well.
The Philippines is more welcoming of the AUKUS though President Duterte sounded contradictory. Secretary of Foreign Affairs Locsin on 19 September welcomed AUKUS. He said “ASEAN member states, singly and collectively, do not possess the military wherewithal to maintain peace and security in Southeast Asia” and “There is an imbalance in the forces available to the ASEAN member states, with the main balancer more than half a world away. The enhancement of a near abroad ally’s ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it”. President Rodrigo Duterte on 27 November, however, was cautious, expressing concern about a nuclear arms race in the region.
Thailand has moved closer to China and is buying submarines from it. It now sees its plans as justified after AUKUS. Former Thai Deputy Prime Minister Pinit Jarusombat said AUKUS will intensify an arms race in the region, adding to the burdens of the region and leading to a negative impact on nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Cambodian Foreign Minister Sokhonn, in a call with Australian Foreign Minister Payne, expected that the AUKUS will “not fuel unhealthy rivalries and further escalate tension”. They have not followed the Chinese sharp criticism this time.
Both Myanmar and Laos have abstained from commenting on this alliance. China’s view of AUKUS is that it “will gravely undermine regional peace and stability, aggravate arms race, and impair international nuclear non-proliferation efforts. It runs counter to regional countries wishes.” China also sees AUKUS as an exclusive club alien to the region.
ASEAN is showing a lack of unanimity on how they view AUKUS. By talking about nuclear issues, they are papering over their incapacities. All of them realise that power rivalry in the region is now more challenging. Several welcome this challenge to China but others think they have just about adjusted to China and now AUKUS comes along to tilt the perception of balance.
There is an imbalance in the forces available to the ASEAN member states, with the main balancer more than half a world away.
In 2012, ASEAN started to contend with Chinese aggression the SCS and had a breach in their consensus. It was the effort of the then Indonesian FM Marty Natalegawa, (though Cambodia, not Indonesia, was the chair) to obtain a consensus. Given the situation now the next AMM statement could face some shudders on AUKUS and the Quad. The real thing for ASEAN is where do they go from here?
Former Indonesia Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, warned, “For ASEAN, the inception of AUKUS, like the revitalization of the Quad before it, reminds of the cost of its dithering and indecision on the complex and fast evolving geopolitical environment.” This is the challenge ASEAN faces in reinventing its centrality with responsibility.
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Gurjit Singh has served as Indias ambassador to Germany Indonesia Ethiopia ASEAN and the African Union. He is the Chair of CII Task Force on ...Read More +