The Indo-Pacific region has been enjoying new strategic attention from Western powers unlike any other time before. Since the Obama administration decided to begin countering Beijing’s quest for hegemony, the region has become a strategic, political, and economic focus. The competition between the US and China continues to increase, but what entails the AUKUS security pact by the three English-speaking countries opened the door for an even more challenging future for the region. This article highlights certain possibilities and are the reasons why the announcement made some ASEAN leaders feel uneasy about the future of this region.
A New Level Escalation in the Region
The first problem is that AUKUS is an unnecessary escalation for Southeast Asian countries. The South China Sea is the primary reason for the maritime security pivot to the Indo-Pacific region, which regional countries end up enjoying the benefits from the effort to counter China. But AUKUS serves a bigger geopolitical purpose as part of the direct counterbalance against China militarily. The willingness to share such cutting edge technology like nuclear powered submarines only highlights the extent the US is willing to go. For Australia, the deal indicates that Canberra is the chosen partner, tasked with being the regional leader to counter China in the immediate geography.
From a security perspective, ASEAN’s key concern about China is not necessarily its rise to power, but the situation in the South China Sea. Consequently, AUKUS looks like a SWAT response to a noise complaint. Freedom of navigation operations are appreciated among South China Sea claimants, and the security partner engagements are crucial in fostering dialogs with regional partners. However, a scalable armed conflict between US and China that can lead to war has been something the region has always feared. The future with more nuclear powered submarines and the evolving features of cyber warfare and artificial intelligence that entail AUKUS can shift the conflict to a whole new level.
The alliance can also become a justification for China to retaliate aggressively either in military adventurism or geoeconomic response, a highly likely outcome as China already filed an application to join CPTPP. Among the ramifications is the fear of nuclear capacity arms race as reflected by Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Additionally, it is possible that the region will see the proliferation of litariatory or countermeasures such as long-ranged missiles like The P-800 Oniks Anti-ship missile, or some autonomous weapons as part of an AI arms race.
Damage Regional Relationships
The second problem is AUKUS might damage the perception Southeast Asian countries have towards Western powers in the long run. ASEAN wants to keep the region peaceful, without being forced into parts of the Sino-US conflict. As Singapore Prime Minister reiterated in the previous Aspen Security Forum that a direct confrontation between the two military superpower would be a disaster for the region. Even though the US and its allies are perceived as stabilizers against China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, there is no clear good guy or bad guy in this great power rivalry. Vietnam and the Philippines might be more willing to counter China because they have a direct conflict with China in the sea. In Southeast Asia, there is a generally accepted thinking that “when elephants fight, it’s the ants trapped in the field that die first”. Thus, member states will balance and remain neutral to ensure security. With certain negative feelings towards the one who escalated, both China and the US.
Moreover, the region has always been wary of great powers. The lack of trust on both sides reflects today in some parts of the regional intelligence communities, who are somewhat alarmed by the increased military activities in the region. The growing Chinese influence certainly plays a key role in this geopolitical nervousness of ASEAN as much as the military threat. Besides, how Australia’s submarine deal went through with France only damaged its credibility and undermined the effort to calm the region by Canberra.
Heading Towards a Complicated Future
At this point, every analyst can agree that the Southeast Asia region is heading towards a very complicated and difficult future. An arm race is a real possibility, albeit not necessarily a nuclear related one. AUKUS is indeed a major escalation that can create a security dilemma and shift regional dynamics in the future. ASEAN as a group will have an even more difficulty in managing its organization internally to have one voice. Additionally, the new security pact could force China to work harder to expand its influence in the region for strategic gains. Putting the ASEAN centrality concept further away from reality.
Both China and North Korea responded strongly to the creation of AUKUS. Should China decide to retaliate by going for the same strategy of mounting up a counter alliance to go against the QUAD, NATO and now AUKUS. The threat from a nuclear armed conflict will not be so far away. Every stakeholder in the region now has a bigger interest to manage the conflict and relationships than simply mounting militarily against each other. ASEAN also has an interest in delivering better at what it should really be the driving force which is the finishing of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. So that if it can help calm the storm, the region can avoid the circumstances where it is forced to manage relationships in a more zero sum manner.
The AUKUS is an understandable outcome when looking from the US’s point of view. Countering China is now more important than ever for Washington DC. The problem for ASEAN comes in consequence order, first it is a major escalation that puts many on the nerve. With or without any new alliance, ASEAN does not want to see a scalable armed conflict in the region. The escalation brought about by Western powers and a somewhat damaged credibility means that the region cannot trust the alliance to look beyond their own strategic interest and put some emphasis on ASEAN regional architecture. All of this together, marked a new dynamic for the region and a complicated future for regional states. One that is heightened and armed conflict is now more likely than before.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Eastern Interest Team