When first announced in September, the highly controversial AUKUS deal sent shockwaves through the Indo-Pacific region and the world.
As announced by the Australian government, the security pact is intended to strengthen cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities. This includes, most prominently, Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarine technology from the United States and United Kingdom.
And as a result, Australia will no longer pursue the AUS $90bn submarine deal that it negotiated with France, claiming that ‘conventional submarines are unsuited to our operational needs.’
This is largely seen as an attempt to counterbalance China’s growing military influence in the region. But whether this strategic move will actually acheive this objective is another question, and one where the answer is starting to look worrying for the three AUKUS members.
Polarising relationships with allies
One thing the announcement of the AUKUS deal clearly did do, however, was to unsettle–and even antogonise–the three countries’ allies. The US has attempted to build a network of alliances to maintain influence in the Indo-Pacific and beyond–be it the Quadilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with Japan, India, and Australia, the Five Eyes with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK, or now the AUKUS. But what distinguishes the latter is its polarising nature that fractured–perhaps inadvertently but definitely not unexpectedly–the three countries’ existing dynamic with its allies in the region and beyond.
Dr Campbell, President Biden’s US Indo-Pacific advisor and defence expert who played a key role in building AUKUS, said that the pact might have tied Australia ‘more deeply’ to the US. He also insisted close allies can engage in the alliance, and that the pact was not ‘a closed architecture.’ However, Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, counters Campbell’s statement with the assertion that the ‘AUKUS is a closed and exclusive clique informed by the cold war zero-sum mentality with strong military security undertones.’ Indeed, one cannot deny that not only in the substance of the pact but also the abrupt nature of its announcement drove a wedge between allies that Beijing would seek to exploit.
France’s infamous reaction is a case in point. The key member of NATO made its displeasure distinctly known through, among other things, recalling its ambassadors to the US and Australia for consultations to protest the deal and Australia’s unexpected renege of its deal with France. French Prime Minister Mr Macron scathingly accused Australian PM Mr Morrison of lying by omitting that it was in talks with the UK and the US for acquiring UK submarines whilst engaging in talks with France. French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Mr Le Drian further called this a ‘trust crisis.’ For the US and the UK, which are also NATO members, this is a significant and sobering instance by which the two countries disregarded the key security architecture. And although Australia may not be part of NATO, it is a ‘historic ally’ of France. It did not help that UK Prime Minister Mr Johnson trivialised French foreign policy by saying ‘donnez-moi un break’ on this issue. In this regard, France sees it as a betrayal on the part of three key allies, fracturing a diplomatic relationship that took a long time to build and may take even longer to repair. Even the EU had a lukewarm response, postponing its trade talks with Canberra after this deal. This disunity in NATO is a dimension that Beijing would not hesitate to capitalise on.
To make matters worse, key regional players had similar concerning responses. For Thailand, AUKUS adds a new, challenging dynamic to Thailand’s long-standing policy of maintaining balance between superpowers. This is because, as tensions increase, the pressure will increase to pick a side. And as noted by commentator Zhou Bo in South China Morning Post, ‘one can hardly imagine that Thailand, an American ally and a friend of China, would follow the US into a war with China under any circumstances.’
This wavering balance is shared in the wider region. Specifically, AUKUS’s implications for regional security, especically the fear of an arms race provokation, is unsettling. In the five important points it raised, Indonesia demonstrated agitation after the trilateral security partnership was announced without it being consulted. Jakarta also mentioned that it was ‘deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.’ Furthermore, Malaysia also expressed concern about the implications of the AUKUS deal on Australia’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. The ambivalent response in the region is so disquieting that Australia felt the need to issue a reassuring statement on its relationship with regional countries. Indeed, Malaysia’s point has been echoed by China’s Foreign Minister Spokesperson Wang Wenbin, who asserted that the pact would create risks of nuclear proliferation and undermine regional peace and stability.
Another issue the AUKUS pact raises is its impact on ASEAN as a regional organisation. This is another thorn in upholding ASEAN’s principle of non-interference–a key pillar of the multilateral institution. The pact and its nuclear-powered submarines are by themselves pressing outside interference directly influencing the region, and it provokes increased pressure from Beijing in response. This does not bode well for ASEAN centrality nor its efforts to be a stabilising force in the region.
Nor does it bode well for consensus in ASEAN. With its member states already divided on ranging issues from the Myanmar coup to responses to China, this adds another element of disunity. While Malaysia and Indonesia, as aforementioned, are wary over the pact, other countries including Vietnam and the Phillipines welcomed it. This means that, in the East Asian Summit, ASEAN member states would not come up with a statement. These dissonant attitudes towards the pact all feeds into the inability to contain China’s rise.
Rather than deterring China, the pact seemed to make China all the more aggressive. Dr Campbell iterated that the alliance was not a ‘defence pact’ but reality seems to indicate otherwise; he specifically admitted that the deal was in response to China building its navy, nuclear warheads and space capabilities.
In its report, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission also mentioned that China’s ‘unprecedented’ nuclear weapons buildup raises the risk of war with the US and threatens Taiwan’s security. In this vein, Australia’s decision to enter the pact has been criticised as ‘assuming an aggressive strategic posture’ by its former Prime Minister Mr Keating. Indeed, China’s responses to it seem to indicate that it will simply take a more hardline approach in pursuing its interests in the region. For instance, as reported by South China Morning Post, the AUKUS will accelerate China’s drive in negotiating the code of conduct talks on the contested South China Sea. More recently, Dr Campbell accused China of ‘economic warfare’ against Australia as a result of the pact, whereupon China is attempting to ‘drive Australia to its knees’ with sanctions.
The question of whether signing the AUKUS was a mistake is now moot; the deal is said and done. Moving forward, it may be prudent for Australia to attempt engaging in dialogue with China, although the extent of its effectiveness may be questionable. More importantly, Australia should engage in dialogue with its allies–especially those in the Indo-Pacific region–to rebuild confidence.
As noted by Dino Patti Djalal, former Indonesian presidential spokesperson and ambassador to the United States in East Asia Forum, the middle powers in ASEAN may be key for alleviating securing concerns in the region and building room for a ‘strategic entente.’ The alternative is an option that one does not want to envisage.