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.