Security at the core: AUKUS in the Indo-Pacific

The announcement of AUKUS consolidates a security-led conception of the Indo-Pacific over more prosperity-focused ideas championed for example by the EU. It is also likely to increase the tension and overshadow other initiatives in the region. Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, argues that this development does not bode well for ASEAN centrality and peace and stability in Southeast Asia.

How does AUKUS impact the security framework and balance in the Indo-Pacific region?

AUKUS is a big deal for the Indo-Pacific geostrategic canvas. The trilateral security pact between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom has stolen the thunder from other geostrategic schemes that have been around for longer. It overshadows the Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US, and outshines earlier geostrategic projections, such as the US’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). The Anglo-American-Australian alliance designed as a bulwark against China’s assertiveness will likely raise regional tensions to the detriment of ASEAN centrality and Southeast Asia’s peace and stability.

While media attention has been focused on AUKUS’ stated intention to support Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, the trilateral partnership is broader. It intends to share information and technology and integrate security and defence capabilities in the promotion of the existing international rules-based order, which was constructed by the Anglo-American alliance after the Second World War to the benefit of countries including Australia. AUKUS also sets out to protect shared values and promote security and prosperity in the prevailing international system. This is a potent and patently status quo assertion in view of China’s role, status and agenda in the region.

While the Indo-Pacific remains the main arena of contention and contest, AUKUS is more than a two-ocean response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative or territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Mekong region, and elsewhere. The central role of a post-Brexit UK in AUKUS adds the Atlantic Ocean into the Indo-Pacific mix, entailing a re-conceptualisation of the contours and dynamics of global politics. This three-ocean projection will further make Beijing feel more encircled and agitated. As a result, the near-term ramifications are not hard to imagine. AUKUS outflanks the Quad and its FOIP basis because India’s and Japan’s combined heft has been insufficient to take China to task. Despite its contentious issues and tensions with China, India’s congenital autonomy precludes being roped into the Australia-America axis against Beijing. Similarly, Japan sees China as a geopolitical rival and security threat but needs to chart its own path in dealing with Beijing. That said, no country with a direct land or maritime border with China is willing to openly incur the wrath of Beijing. This is why the Quad can only go so far.


Where does AUKUS leave Europe with its recently published Indo-Pacific strategy?

AUKUS is deeply consequential for both the UK and the EU. For the EU, it poses a major challenge to its Indo-Pacific Strategy. For the UK, being out of the European Union means having to carve out its own niche. At the core stands the question what kind of great power the UK wants to be. Being a great power, as it appears to be the UK’s intent, comes with costs and requires resources that it may struggle to mobilize. Australia, on the other hand, does not lack strategic clarity in AUKUS. Canberra wants to be a strong and solid middle power that can stand tall in pursuit of its national interest.

AUKUS is likely to further alienate the UK from the EU, which has its own and more autonomous Indo-Pacific strategy. By undermining the European Project and the broader rules-based liberal international order – of which the EU is its crowning achievement – the UK through Brexit and now AUKUS muddles the water even further. The maintenance of that order, which is a primary objective of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, will be harder to come by. Moreover, AUKUS enflames the French pillar of the EU by not just hijacking a submarines procurement deal but also by posing a frontal diplomatic and defence affront on France. Paris has the most forward-deployed maritime capabilities among EU members in the region. French relations with the three AUKUS countries will continue to be fractious, thereby complicating EU strategic engagements with Canberra, London and Washington.


What is the dominant perspective from Thailand and how do other key ASEAN stakeholders view the development?

AUKUS will be seen in Beijing as an act of symbolic aggression by the Western powers. Chinese strategic planners will likely blame the Australians, first for picking a fight by accusing China of starting the coronavirus pandemic and then, after China bullied back with a trade and tariff war, getting its bigger friend and cousin to gang up on Beijing. Surely, AUKUS will elicit a clear and muscular response in no uncertain terms. Already Chinese warplanes have hovered over Taiwanese skies. China’s South China Sea manoeuvres may be stepped up, and its “wolf warrior” diplomacy will probably become more active. China will likely see itself as a victim rather than the aggressor. These tensions will simmer and manifest in the ASEAN domain.

While China has divided ASEAN on the South China Sea issues and attracted Cambodia and Laos to its fold, AUKUS will further polarize the 10-member grouping, which already has been hobbled by Myanmar’s post-coup crisis. Malaysia and Indonesia, as opposed to the Philippines for instance, are not in favour of AUKUS, while the trilateral deal may complicate related cooperative vehicles, such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements among Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK.

ASEAN centrality will thus face a further test under AUKUS, as Australia pushes back against China in Southeast Asia’s neighbourhood. A more unified and uniformed ASEAN is needed to maintain a central role in regional cooperation for peace and security. But ASEAN has suffered more and more from disunity and discord. In fact, the Quad’s recent moves and now AUKUS are by-products of ASEAN’s inertia and inability to provide organization and direction in its own neighbourhood. It does not mean ASEAN will crumble or disappear but its relevance and central role will further diminish. There are also related consequences from AUKUS. ASEAN and New Zealand are intent on maintaining a nuclear-free environment, which is now made more difficult. The Asia-Pacific geostrategic frame is now more marginalized and eclipsed by the Indo-Pacific, shifting the focus from prosperity to security.


What are your expectations for Germany’s future foreign and defence policy in the region?

Germany’s work will be more daunting in the Indo-Pacific geostrategic frame for several reasons. First, the French will not look upon AUKUS amicably in a compatible and accommodating fashion. France’s ire, in turn, may tilt the EU to become skeptical towards AUKUS. Second, as AUKUS is likely to raise geopolitical tensions, the strategic environment for Germany will become more difficult. Third, projecting German interests through the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy will face more limitations because AUKUS has trumped and outflanked the EU. As a result, Germany may be forced to chart out more of its own strategic autonomy and direction above and beyond the EU.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok, Thailand. He also serves as a Senior Advisor to the FES Asia Strategic Foresight Group. 


About this series:

The publication of the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy coincided with the announcement of AUKUS, the new security partnership between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, creating a flurry of geopolitical waves across the region and beyond. In a series of short interviews, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) in Asia brings you insights and analyses from thought leaders to put the complex strategic implications of these developments into perspective. Our experts also share their expectations for Germany’s future foreign and defence policy after the recent elections.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

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