On 15 September 2021, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia unveiled the AUKUS military alliance that is aimed at promoting a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. At the core of the alliance is the move towards enhancing nuclear submarine capabilities in the waters of the Indo-Pacific, with the aim to provide credible military deterrence and project against what remains unsaid—an increasingly assertive Chinese position in these waters. This military pact between the three countries will have a far-reaching impact in the Indo-Pacific.
While the announcement came as a surprise, the move is not a totally new revelation as this kind of formulation could well be anticipated in the foreign policy manoeuvrings of the three states. The re-emphasis of America’s interest in the erstwhile Asia-Pacific and the newly conceptualised Indo-Pacific was evident even under the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia policy or the US Rebalancing. Increasingly, there was visible continuity in the political administrations within the US—under President Trump, the “free and open Indo-Pacific” reiterated the importance of the region. However, the Trump administration also saw the US-China ties touch an all-time low both due to the trade war and in the post-Covid period. Similarly, for Australia too, the post-pandemic period saw a serious dip in its bilateral ties with China, which automatically paved the way for closer ties with its long-standing ally, the US. For Australia, the initial hesitation in joining the Quad in 2007 gave way to a more robust interaction with the group since 2017. The AUKUS pact however is clinching evidence of Australia’s standing commitment to its long-held Western alliance. For the UK, its post-Brexit foreign policy was one that was aimed at promoting the vision of a Global Britain, a role in which it saw itself as a core member of the NATO alliance. The vision also re-emphasises the importance of the maritime domain in Britain’s foreign policy, with a focus on securing the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). The key strategy for such a shift was to look at the Indo-Pacific as a core area, which was reiterated in the policy paper titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age. Three parameters are clearly discussed in the paper along the lines of economic opportunities, security issues and a value-based approach that rests on the core need to preserve the given normative order. As a result, the core areas covered by the AUKUS agreement in some senses pushes the envelope on the protracted nature of the Sino-US rivalry in the region, cloaking it within the parameters of a ‘new cold war’ dynamic that does not sit well with the overarching foreign policy approaches of either the EU or the members of ASEAN.
The AUKUS alliance has its share of responses both within Europe and in the region of the Indo-Pacific. In April 2021 itself the European Union had brought out The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, and a Joint Communication was presented last month a day after the AUKUS deal was announced. While the EU paper identifies seven core areas on which the group seeks to partner with other states to address common challenges, the strategy is more inclusive in recognising that China is a critical player that needs to be a part of it. More importantly the strategy is far more tilted towards issues of non-traditional security such as climate change, preserving biodiversity, Covid-19 and its economic impact, etc. This then drives the distinction between the approach of the EU and AUKUS: wherein the latter is bringing the focus back on traditional military-related balance of power approach, the former is looking at partnering across a range of states to address softer security issues with lasting impact on human security. For Southeast Asia, AUKUS reflects the hardest of choices in terms of how to evolve a regional approach to the fast changes shaping great power rivalry in the region. ASEAN processes that expanded externally to cover the Asia-Pacific remained the core of the multilateral plank in the region. But the AUKUS deal reflects the growing move towards what several are calling the ‘new cold war’ even though that remains debatable given the high levels of economic integration that China has both regionally and globally.
For the ASEAN, the move will be seen in very dichotomous terms—at the domestic level some countries may find reason to quietly “accept” the move given that several nations of the region consider the US as the long-term security partner. For ASEAN as a whole this move complicates the role that it sees for itself in two ways: first, the group considers agenda setting as core to its regional functions. Like the EU, ASEAN has been focusing on issues of climate change, environment and, in recent times, the devastating impact of Covid. While the US-led Quad looks at the impact on these issues a bit more, AUKUS is more focused on a security-driven approach. Second is the centrality question. Throughout its history, ASEAN had a centrality that was externally imposed by the major players ascribing that role to the grouping and was led by its institutional mechanisms for the region. Increasingly the question of whether ASEAN is capable of singularly addressing the changing structural dynamics in the region gives cause for reflection. The ASEAN’s approach to a non-aligned position is repeatedly being seen as a weak response to China’s aggressive posturing in the region. In January 2021, the State of Southeast Asia report from the ISEAS Singapore identified the EU as having the greatest trust among the ASEAN respondents. The AUKUS deal will most likely further increase this trust factor between the two.
Shankari Sundararaman, Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi (email@example.com)