Analysis

Why Southeast Asia Should Welcome AUKUS

Australia models independence in standing up to China.

By , an Indonesian Ph.D. scholar with the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra.
An Australian Navy submarine is seen during a maritime exercise.
In this handout image provided by the Australian Defence Force, Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Rankin is seen during a biennial maritime exercise between the Royal Australian Navy and the Indian Navy in Darwin, Australia, on Sept. 5. POIS Yuri Ramsey/Australian Defence Force via Getty Images

Decades ago, in 1976, then-Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik compared Australia to an appendix in Southeast Asia’s abdominal cavity: It only matters when it hurts. In other words, as the renowned Indonesian analyst Harry Tjan Silalahi interpreted it, “you only become aware of its existence when it causes pain.”

On Sept. 16, that appendix was apparently inflamed. The creation of a non-treaty partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, popularly known as AUKUS, affirmed Canberra’s ties to London and Washington, its “great and powerful friends,” as Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, once described them. AUKUS’ first initiative of many is to equip Australia with at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. Washington has never shared its closely guarded, top-secret nuclear submarine technology—purportedly the world’s most advanced—with any country other than Britain.

AUKUS has been widely interpreted as another U.S. effort to deter China. But in the region where Sino-American rivalry exerts the most influence—Southeast Asia—and particularly among the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the reception to the news has been surprisingly mild.

Decades ago, in 1976, then-Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik compared Australia to an appendix in Southeast Asia’s abdominal cavity: It only matters when it hurts. In other words, as the renowned Indonesian analyst Harry Tjan Silalahi interpreted it, “you only become aware of its existence when it causes pain.”

On Sept. 16, that appendix was apparently inflamed. The creation of a non-treaty partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, popularly known as AUKUS, affirmed Canberra’s ties to London and Washington, its “great and powerful friends,” as Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, once described them. AUKUS’ first initiative of many is to equip Australia with at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. Washington has never shared its closely guarded, top-secret nuclear submarine technology—purportedly the world’s most advanced—with any country other than Britain.

AUKUS has been widely interpreted as another U.S. effort to deter China. But in the region where Sino-American rivalry exerts the most influence—Southeast Asia—and particularly among the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the reception to the news has been surprisingly mild.

ASEAN governments are, at worst, cautious of AUKUS, but none is obviously hostile to it. So far the strongest critiques of the partnership have come from Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia’s prime ministerial statement seemed to initially conflate nuclear weapons with nuclear submarine propulsion, alleging AUKUS to “be a catalyst toward a nuclear arms race” that could “provoke other powers to act more aggressively.” Indonesia, which proudly flaunts its nonaligned foreign policy, was muted in its response: A statement from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Jakarta merely “observes with caution” Australia’s submarine acquisition and made no mention of AUKUS itself. Meanwhile, other regional countries, like Thailand and Brunei, have yet to react publicly. Some, like Singapore, have seemingly given AUKUS their tacit endorsement. The Philippines explicitly endorsed AUKUS as keeping “the balance” in the region in light of Beijing’s “challenge to the status quo.”

Such tepid responses are especially noticeable because past U.S.-backed initiatives designed to deter China incited hawkish reactions from some ASEAN countries. Then-Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa feared that the Obama administration’s 2011 pivot to Asia (later renamed “rebalance”) could “provoke a reaction and counter-reaction” and “vicious circle of tensions and mistrust or distrust.” Singapore and Malaysia registered similar concerns. In contrast, regional reception to AUKUS is more nuanced. While the Indonesian foreign ministry’s statement says that “Indonesia is deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region,” this concern is addressed not specifically to AUKUS members but to all countries, including China. Even Marty, now in his retirement, questions whether AUKUS is merely “old wine in [a] new bottle.”

This changing posture must be viewed against the backdrop of China’s increasingly aggressive activity in the South China Sea, which has dramatically changed public opinion in the region. According to a 2021 survey by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 62.4 percent of ASEAN respondents “are concerned about China’s militarisation and assertive actions” in the South China Sea. While most (72.3 percent) are worried about China’s role as the region’s undisputed economic giant, a greater majority (88.6 percent) believe that China’s growing political and strategic influence is cause for concern, too. Not surprisingly, a majority (61.5 percent) of respondents would align with the United States over China if forced to choose.

ASEAN’s reception of AUKUS might parallel its response to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”—an informal security framework between Japan, the United States, Australia, and India. According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, only 10 percent of ASEAN respondents oppose the Quad. In fact, a 57 percent majority regards the Quad as “having a useful role” in the Indo-Pacific region. A plurality (40.3 percent) of respondents to the ISEAS survey desire more clarity in ASEAN’s own Indo-Pacific concept, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), and 53.8 percent would like to see ASEAN do more in the face of mounting U.S. and Chinese pressure.

The problem is that the AOIP remains mainly a normative construct that has little, if any, clout with China. The AOIP even falls short of denouncing China’s actions to pursue maritime claims that are inconsistent with the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Nor does the AOIP specifically press home an “effective, substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” as the European Union did in its recently released Indo-Pacific strategy.

The Quad and AUKUS, by contrast, are strategic responses to China’s rise. All of these groups’ member countries share a similar anxiety about Beijing, and it is only expected that they would respond in a coalitional manner. Arguably, the strategic elements of the Quad and AUKUS represent exactly what some ASEAN countries need to augment their diplomatic leverage over China as the region becomes more vulnerable to its influence.

Instead of counting the costs of opposition to Beijing, ASEAN leaders should ponder their affordability.

AUKUS is where Australia, the appendix, may prove its worth to the region. Though it is Australia’s largest trade partner, Beijing has nonetheless punished Canberra for the latter’s inquiries over the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak, among other grievances. Australia lost a chunk of its export market as a result, though the loss has not been irrecoverable: Australia has found a way to continue trading with alternative partners.

Viewed in one way, AUKUS is a testament to both Australia’s independence and its leverage. By reinforcing its alliances with Britain and the United States, Australia is showing defiance of—and thus preserving its independence from—China and its wrath. Neither recoiling nor cowering from Beijing’s economic and diplomatic coercion, Canberra persists to defy Beijing’s “wolf warrior” tactics. Of course, one may interpret the glass to be half-empty: that AUKUS merely solidifies Australia’s dependence on alliances. But the fact remains—a domestically contested one—that alliance with the United States and solidarity with Britain are what most Australians aspire to and choose. Importantly, Australians are not forced to opt so.

And with this choice comes the perks: Australia managed to enlist British and U.S. support for its submarine acquisition plan. Canberra wielded enough leverage to secure the Anglo-American commitment to provide a capability that no other nonnuclear power has ever possessed. Nuclear-powered submarines will provide Australia with the capability to extend its maritime striking distance to where China’s naval forces would likely be concentrated during hostilities: the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. A less aggressive, but no less important, role would be a longer submerged duration for naval intelligence and espionage purposes.

Still, Australia’s exercise of its independence and leverage entails significant costs, both economic and diplomatic. Dogged by lengthy delays and cost overruns, Australia’s 2016 submarine deal with France became the casualty of the leverage Canberra exploited to spawn AUKUS. France berated Canberra for a “breach of trust.” On balance, however, Canberra must have realized that such costs, though hefty, are affordable or even redeemable in the long run.

Australia’s experience can offer lessons for ASEAN countries. Instead of counting the costs of opposition to Beijing, ASEAN leaders should ponder their affordability. ASEAN countries need to reflect on how much independence they have lost or are losing while deflating opposition to Beijing’s coercive diplomacy. Rather than fearing China’s counteroffensive, ASEAN should formulate an Indo-Pacific strategy that recognizes AUKUS, the Quad, and other similar arrangements as leverage over China’s growing military and economic power.

It is increasingly difficult to find pan-regional consensus on the Sino-American rivalry, and there is a fear that ASEAN’s unity and centrality will erode if it responds. No present ASEAN leaders can afford to face the cost of a fractured bloc. But paradoxically, Beijing also draws much of its strength from this regional splintering, which inhibits unified regional action. The challenge, then, is how ASEAN leaders can reconcile this paradox and lend their bloc the strategic relevance its people desire.

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto is an Indonesian Ph.D. scholar with the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra. He is the co-editor of Naval Modernisation in Southeast Asia: Problems and Prospects for Small and Medium Navies. His writings have appeared in the Diplomat, the Australian, the Jakarta Post, East Asia Forum, the Strait Times, Janes Navy International, and Defense News, among others.

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