By Harris Amjad*
The September 2021 Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) announcement made no mention of ASEAN. The omission is significant because the three AUKUS member countries are ASEAN dialogue partners. While the US has reemphasised ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific, it has committed to strengthen and empower not just ASEAN, but specifically a “unified ASEAN.”
This article asks two questions from ASEAN’s perspective: Could AUKUS further diminish the grouping’s unity? And consequently, could AUKUS risk ASEAN’s de facto position of centrality in the Indo-Pacific framework?
ASEAN member states had quite divergent responses to the AUKUS announcement. Indonesia and Malaysia expressed strong opposition, fearing the onset of a regional arms race. Cambodia similarly expressed concern, with Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn hoping that AUKUS would not escalate tensions in the region. The Philippines, on the other hand, welcomed “the enhancement of a near abroad ally’s ability to project power,” which “should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilise it.” Vietnam signalled a veiled acceptance of the grouping, while Singapore “hoped that AUKUS would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region.” Others like Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos chose to remain silent.
These different responses are indicative of ASEAN’s pre-existing unity problem. Their responses to the South China Sea (SCS) dispute or more recent ones like the Myanmar crisis are other examples of its ‘disunity’. The emergence of AUKUS may be another such issue that risks widening the distance between ASEAN states.
At the regional level, China has been able to create a wedge within ASEAN by using its economic clout to influence member states, or leave them with little room to manoeuvre. Some states like Laos and Cambodia have their interests enmeshed with China’s, with Beijing providing vital developmental assistance. ASEAN has often struggled to get pro-China member states to agree to positions that would invoke a negative Chinese reaction. This highlights the challenges of ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making.
Similarly, such disagreements could be further catalysed by AUKUS’ emergence. It could obstruct ASEAN-led efforts to address regional challenges. AUKUS also incentivises ASEAN member states to explore bilateral and multilateral arrangements, beyond the scope of the regional grouping, to safeguard their security interests. This further diminishes ASEAN’s ability to make decisions by consensus, and in turn, impacts ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific.
AUKUS could risk ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific in two direct ways. The first is the potential acceleration of a regional arms race amid rising geopolitical tensions. AUKUS will improve Australia’s maritime capabilities, which could induce China to pivot and justify its defence policy as a counter. China has already heavily criticised AUKUS. It has also argued that the West is depicting a “Cold War mentality,” with the US showcasing an overt strategy to “contain” China.
For ASEAN, AUKUS and China’s potential response to it creates the problem of increasing militarisation in the SCS. Seen in light of ASEAN disunity, these developments could further jeopardise its ability to arrive at a common understanding on the dispute with China.
Second, AUKUS reflects the disposition of extra-regional players to look beyond the ASEAN-led framework to safeguard their interests in the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN’s own decision-making paralysis further compounds the problem. This could lead to its own member states exploring other groupings to hedge against stand-offs between China and extra-regional powers. Such actions will diminish the primacy accorded to ASEAN in addressing regional issues, and erode ASEAN centrality.
The AUKUS announcement and the manner in which it unfolded pose challenges for ASEAN. The US, China, and their respective partners are aware of the vital importance of Southeast Asia, which is at the heart of the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS risks a potential exacerbation of differences among ASEAN states on security concerns, which would fuel further disunity within the regional grouping. Although it seeks to uphold the principle of ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific, AUKUS could instead contribute to its erosion.
* Harris Amjad is a Research Intern with IPCS’ South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP).