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AUKUS and the Challenge of Asserting ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The launch of the new security and technology alliance by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States has received a mixed reception in Southeast Asia. Aristyo Rizka Darmawan of the University of Indonesia writes that AUKUS, the revival of the Quad, and the unfolding Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, aimed as they are at containing China, are putting ASEAN in an increasingly difficult position if the grouping is to preserve its neutrality, assert its much-prized centrality in the region, and maintain its sometimes superficial cohesion.

AUKUS and the Challenge of Asserting ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific

Birth of a strategic alliance, September 15: Biden flanked by Prime Minister Morrison of Australia (left) and the UK's Johnson (Credit: The White House)

Geopolitical developments in the Indo-Pacific have come in rapid succession in recent months. The United States has been particularly active. Since taking office in January 2021, US President Joe Biden has convened not just one but two summits of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the US0, the first virtually in March and the second in person in Washington on September 24. New US officials have been talking to their Chinese counterparts – the most dramatic a face-off between foreign ministers and other officials in March in Alaska that was marked by blunt opening exchanges. Visits to China by Biden’s climate czar and the State Department no. 2 seemed to underscore the depths that the US-China relationship have reached. More positive if not altogether productive were visits to the region by the American defense secretary and vice president.

There was a major breakthrough on the US-China technology competition front. On September 9, Biden had a 90-minute phone conversation with China’s leader Xi Jinping, which appeared to open the door to a resolution of the nearly three-year-old dispute between Washington and Beijing over the arrest in 2018 of the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, Meng Wanzhou. Detained in Vancouver on an American extradition request, Meng on September 24 concluded a deferred prosecution agreement with the US Department of Justice that led to her release and departure for China. At around the same time, two Canadians arrested in China on national security grounds days after Meng was taken into custody were set free and flown to Canada – a surprisingly swift resolution of their ordeal after over 1,000 days in captivity.

But it was on the strategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific that a real and surprising bombshell landed on September 15. At the White House, Biden was flanked by video screens beaming in the prime ministers of the UK and Australia as they launched the Australia, UK, and US security pact, known as AUKUS. Under this security grouping, Australia will develop a nuclear-powered submarine program with British and American assistance. The three will also cooperate to enhance and share cyber capabilities including artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other advanced technologies. The idea for AUKUS was apparently hatched at the G7 summit in Cornwall, England, at which Biden, host Boris Johnson and Australia’s PM Scott Morrison met.

Though it will take over a decade for Australia to develop its submarine fleet, AUKUS could be a regional security-gamechanger, creating a club within the Five Eyes intelligence-gathering grouping that also includes Canada and New Zealand. It would give Australia, now embroiled in a heated trade and word war with China, a much-enhanced undersea defense capability and a much closer strategic alliance with the US. On its own and in the context of the Quad, AUKUS bolsters the view that Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy is chiefly aimed at containing China. Beijing naturally said as much in its reaction.

The Quad Summit, September 24: Is ASEAN on the Indo-Pacific sidelines? (Credit: The White House)

The Quad Summit, September 24: Is ASEAN on the Indo-Pacific sidelines? (Credit: The White House)

But what about the countries caught in the middle – yet again? The 10 members of ASEAN have sought to safeguard their prized construct of the region’s “centrality” – the idea that Southeast Asian nations are the fulcrum on which the delicate balance of powers in the Asia Pacific depends for peace and stability. AUKUS in the context of the Quad and an expanded role for the Five Eyes seems to indicate that a new regional Indo-Pacific framework is evolving and that ASEAN is merely a spectator. Indeed, as with France, the US’s oldest ally, which had a contract to supply conventional submarines to Canberra, and others among Washington’s nearest and dearest, ASEAN members were not consulted about AUKUS and were belatedly advised of its launch.

Etiquette aside, AUKUS has raised serious concerns among countries in the region, including Indonesia and Malaysia, with some worried that that it could lead to nuclear proliferation (Australia has asserted that it has no plans to have its nuclear-powered submarines fitted with nuclear weapons) and raise security tensions in an already tense region. Some – notably, the Philippines, which is one of the Southeast Asian countries at the forefront of the maritime dispute with China over the South China Sea – have welcomed the deal. Singapore did not express a firm position. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that he “hoped that AUKUS would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.”

Without naming China specifically, the AUKUS countries stipulated that the group was aimed at deterring potential threats. The Quad members have said the same about their grouping, which started out as a cooperative effort for humanitarian relief after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunamis in 2004. The promotion of the use of the term “Indo-Pacific” and its framing as a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) by main proponents Japan and the US have China clearly in mind as the main adversary. Intersection of the Quad, the Anglo-world-centric AUKUS, and the FOIP construct seem to be the makings of a security concept for the region if not a full-fledged strategic architecture.

Since the FOIP strategies and the Quad gained currency starting in the administration of Barack Obama and continuing strongly under his successor and Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, ASEAN members have debated how to respond. Member states have put forward an anodyne “outlook” on the Indo-Pacific and have articulated a neutral stance on the Quad. With the establishment of AUKUS, the Quad appears likely to focus on non-military initiatives such as infrastructure development, vaccine distribution and supply-chain resilience. AUKUS, meanwhile, will be a defense and strategic technology alliance.

Regardless of the diverging positions among ASEAN states towards Quad and AUKUS, members clearly have to rethink its regional security architecture in response to these US-driven developments. It is telling that, in recent months as the Quad has gained prominence, there has been little discussion of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) frameworks, which are widely regarded as weak and ineffective preventive-diplomacy structures.

The organization has maintained three main pillars: political-security, economic, and socio-cultural. However, the political-security community has arguably lagged the others in staying relevant and up to date. ASEAN introduced a Political-Security Community Blueprint in 2009, updating it three years ago with the release of the “ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint 2025”.

In this document, ASEAN outlines plans to enhance security cooperation not only among its members but also with dialogue partners through existing instruments such as the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) Declaration, the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in Southeast Asia (TAC), and the Treaty on the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ).

The blueprint emphasized the importance of ASEAN centrality in a dynamic and outward-looking Region. Since its publication, however, the US-China strategic rivalry has intensified. ASEAN has reaffirmed its neutrality in tandem with its insistence on its centrality. The “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” indicated that centrality was predicated mainly on economic and maritime cooperation rather than regional security.

ASEAN ambassadors to the organization meet US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (sixth from left) in Jakarta on May 31 (Credit: @INAASEANJkt on Twitter)

ASEAN ambassadors to the organization meet US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (sixth from left) in Jakarta on May 31 (Credit: @INAASEANJkt on Twitter)

AUKUS should be an alarm bell that draws ASEAN off the sidelines to reassert its centrality by taking a broader view. But the differing perspectives of members on the new alliance indicate that shaping a meaningful consensus on security matters will be especially difficult in an organization that is not known for taking bold action. And even if countries support AUKUS, some will be reluctant to express this position openly. China has already condemned the group as risking “severely damaging regional peace and intensifying the arms race”.

The US, will no doubt, apply its own pressure. Trump’s national security adviser HR McMaster has argued that Southeast Asian nations should welcome AUKUS because China represents one of the biggest threats to regional security. AUKUS, he said, would deter China from taking aggressive action in the South China Sea.

The maritime dispute has posed a major challenge for ASEAN, with countries confounded by Chinese activity in the disputed zone yet reluctant to alienate Beijing for fear of reprisals including trade and investment measures that could harm their economies. A recent survey of respondents across ASEAN conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute found that, if forced to choose sides between the US and China, 61.5 percent would pick Washington. AUKUS has made ASEAN’s balancing act even more awkward. Can the 10 still cling to their neutrality and prized centrality and yet maintain their sometimes paper-thin cohesion?

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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