On September 15, 2021, a new enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) (AUKUS) was announced. According to the joint statement, the emerging complexities in the Indo-Pacific which would have wide implications for all across the region, necessitated the need for this ‘next-generation partnership’ that seeks to deliver security and stability. The statement clearly outlined AUKUS’ intent to enhance the “growing network of partnership in the Indo-Pacific region” including with the ASEAN. The pact will also see the US and UK give Australia the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines.[i]
ASEAN’s Response to AUKUS
The formation of the new security alignment has received a mixed response from the ASEAN member states. Indonesia has suggested that the trilateral security arrangement could trigger an arms race in the region. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, on September 17, 2021, expressed concerns about the continued arms race and projection of military power in the region while encouraging Australia and other related parties to continue promoting dialogue in resolving differences peacefully. Defence Secretary of the Philippines, Delfin Lorenzana in a telephonic conversation with his Australian counterpart Peter Dutton stated that his country would like to maintain good bilateral relations with all other countries in the region, suggesting that Manila does not want to be seen as taking sides.[ii] Malaysia also expressed similar views as Indonesia on AUKUS with Prime Minister (PM) Ismail Sabri Yaakob stating that the “... new three-way defence alliance... would be a catalyst for a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region... (and) will provoke other powers to act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea....”[iii]
Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong in talks with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison expressed hope “...that AUKUS would complement regional frameworks and contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region...”[iv] Further Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in his address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 25, 2021, stated that Singapore is “not unduly anxious” about AUKUS, as it has a longstanding, constructive relationship, with the three countries.[v] Vietnam has taken a more cautious view on AUKUS, where its spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang expressed that the new trilateral security arrangement should strive for the “...same goal of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and the world over...”[vi]
At the 31st Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) held on September 16, 2021, at Washington D.C. in which the US was represented by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and the Australian delegation was represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for Women Marise Payne and Minister for Defence Peter Dutton. Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to Southeast Asia, ASEAN centrality, and ASEAN-led architecture such as the East Asia Summit, which they recognised “...as the region’s premier, leaders-led forum for addressing strategic challenges and expressed their ongoing support for the practical implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific....”[vii]
ASEAN under a Growing Network of Security Partnerships
The emerging security environment in the post-Cold War period has necessitated the need for ASEAN to change the nature of its regional interaction and cooperation. This led ASEAN to establish new regional mechanisms to improve regional institutional capacity in order to respond to emerging security challenges some of which were transnational in nature.[viii] This resulted in the proliferation of a multitude of ASEAN-led regional initiatives which include the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM plus. The participation of other regional powers in the ASEAN-led mechanisms has also increased engagement beyond trade and investment to include the deepening of political and security ties. The Indo-Pacific which is today the epicentre of the emerging strategic rivalry; given the geographical centrality of Southeast Asia, it has led to greater efforts to develop a more ASEAN-centric approach. With the US-China competition in this region continuing to intensify, the ASEAN member states remain apprehensive about China’s strategic intentions in particular its militarisation in the South China Sea. At the same time some of the ASEAN countries have expressed unease over the US Indo-Pacific strategy (Free and Open Indo-Pacific) perceived by them as a direct response to China’s more assertive approach. Meanwhile both the US and China have been engaged to further strengthen their respective strategic presence in the region through diplomatic outreach. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visit to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore in mid-September 2021 was aimed to reinforce Beijing’s importance to the region’s economic recovery from COVID-19 and its commitment towards promoting regional and global peace, stability, and prosperity.[ix]
During his two day visit to Singapore (September 13-14), Foreign Minister Yi expressed China’s willingness to “..enhance strategic communication with Singapore and focus on cooperation in five fields, including anti-epidemic efforts, joint construction of the Belt and Road, sustainable development, regional cooperation in East Asia and multilateral cooperation, and inject new impetus into bilateral relations...”[x] Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the ASEAN countries follows the earlier visits of US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in July 2021 and the Vice President Kamala Harris visit to Singapore and Vietnam in August 2021. Both Vice President Harris and Defence Secretary Austin during their visit spoke against China’s action in the South China Sea and committed to stand with their allies and partners in the face of Chinese assertiveness.[xi]
ASEAN member states driven by their individual geo-strategic interests seek to maintain a balance in different degrees between the US and China. This approach allows the ASEAN states the latitude to reap the economic benefits of their relations with China while benefiting from a US security presence. The impact of such nuanced position makes it difficult for ASEAN to speak with one voice on matters of regional security. Further, the call for building an inclusive regional architecture through the ASEAN-led mechanisms like the EAS – as a platform for dialogue and cooperation – however remains limited on account of its institutional limitations that include its consensus model of decision-making and the principle of non-intervention as adopted in its Charter.[xii]
The establishment of AUKUS which also has actors’ external to the region will reinforce pressures on ASEAN member states to take sides and thus impacting its primacy in the region.[xiii] Further, it is to be seen how it would impact the existing multilateral security arrangements in Southeast Asia such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) established in April 1971 between Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore. The FPDA is one of the oldest existing multilateral defence arrangements in the region and while it is not a binding defence treaty, it commits the five members to consult in case of an armed attack on Malaysia or Singapore.[xiv] Malaysia which is also one of the ASEAN countries that contests China’s claim to the entire South China Sea have been on the receiving end with recent incidence of Chinese military aircrafts flying over the disputed waters off its eastern state of Sarawak.[xv] As Malaysia is part of the FPDA and given that Australia and UK are common partners in both the security alliance, it remains to be seen how the dynamics between the two arrangements will emerge and impact the larger security architecture of the region.
With the region today at the centre of the emerging great power rivalry, there is a proliferation of bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral security arrangements. Notwithstanding ASEAN’s efforts, the region continues to be plagued by a host of intra- regional and extra-regional tensions and challenges. As the nature of threats have transformed over time, there has also been an emerging divergence about threat perceptions amongst the ASEAN countries. This continues to weaken the ASEAN-led mechanisms towards achieving a resolution towards collectively addressing the security challenges. The establishment of AUKUS, which is based on a trilateral military alliance, adds yet another dimension to the region’s security environment where ASEAN would have to undertake a balanced approach. For the moment, the increasing number of multilateral security arrangements in the region which includes external actors makes the ASEAN countries concerned about the negative fallout on the region.
*Dr. Temjenmeren Ao is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[i]“Remarks by President Biden, Prime Minister Morrison of Australia, and Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom Announcing the Creation of AUKUS”, The While House, September 15, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/09/15/remarks-by-president-biden-prime-minister-morrison-of-australia-and-prime-minister-johnson-of-the-united-kingdom-announcing-the-creation-of-aukus/, Accessed on September 27, 2021.
[ii]Southeast Asian Nations Cautious Over New AUKUS Defence Pact”, Radio Free Asia, September 17, 2021,https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/aukus-southeastasia-09172021164007.html, Accessed on September 27, 2021.
[iii]Chris Barrett and James Massola, “Malaysia warns AUKUS pact will spark nuclear arms race in Indo-Pacific”, The Sydney Morning Herald, September 18, 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/malaysia-warns-aukus-pact-will-spark-nuclear-arms-race-in-indo-pacific-20210918-p58stm.htmlAccessed on September 27, 2021.
[iv] Aqil Haziq Mahmud, “Singapore tells UN General Assembly it will help small states with digitalisation and COVID-19 recovery”, CNA, September 26, 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/world/un-singapore-covid-19-digitalisation-aukus-2202446, Accessed on September 27, 2021.
[vi]Tu Anh, “Vietnam spells out stance on AUKUS”, Hanoi Times, September 23, 2021, https://hanoitimes.vn/vietnam-spells-out-stance-on-aukus-318802.html, Accessed on September 27, 2021.
[vii]“The Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations Joint Statement: An Unbreakable Alliance for Peace and Prosperity”, Ministry for Foreign Affairs Minister for Women, September 17, 2021, https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/media-release/australia-us-ministerial-consultations-joint-statement-unbreakable-alliance-peace-and-prosperity, Accessed on September 27, 2021.
[viii]Mely Caballero- Anthony, “Reflections on Political Change, democratic transitions, and regional security in Southeast Asia”, in Mely Caballero-Anthony (edi), Political Change, Democratic Transitions and Security in Southeast Asia, (Routledge: Oxon, 2010), p. 138.
[ix] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on September 7, 2021”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, September 7, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1905278.shtml, Accessed on October 5, 2021.
[x]“Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian's Regular Press Conference on September 15, 2021”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, September 15, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1907224.shtml, Accessed on October 5, 2021.
[xi] Sebastian Strangio, “Chinese FM Winds Up Southeast Asia Trip with Stops in Cambodia, Singapore”, The Diplomat, September 15, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/09/chinese-fm-winds-up-southeast-asia-trip-with-stops-in-cambodia-singapore/, Accessed on October 5, 2021.
[xii] Jonathan R. Stromseth, “Navigating Great Power Competition in Southeast Asia”, Brookings, December 8, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/9780815739142_ch1-1.pdf, Accessed on October 4, 2021.
[xiii] Laura Southgate, “AUKUS: The View from ASEAN”, The Diplomat, September 23, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/09/aukus-the-view-from-asean/, Accessing on October 4, 2021.
[xiv] Euan Graham, “The Five Power Defence Arrangement at 50? What next?”, IISS, December 10, 2020, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2020/12/five-power-defence-arrangements, Accessed on October 5, 2021.