Authors: Raihan Ronodipuro & Hafizha Dwi Ulfa*
The United States’ new tripartite defense alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as the nuclear-powered submarine cooperation that will follow it, will only add to the region’s instability.
Since its announcement in mid-September, several countries have joined China in expressing reservations over the so-called AUKUS security alliance. Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s foreign ministers joined others voicing alarm over Australia’s ambition to construct nuclear-powered submarines within the AUKUS framework, as well as the risks of the region’s rising geopolitical competitiveness, on Monday.
Indeed, with the United States reviving old and new alliances in the Asia-Pacific and militarizing the area in an attempt to contain and isolate China, the region risks becoming a powder keg waiting to be ignited. For decades, Southeast Asian nations have had strong and mutually beneficial relationships with China, and the COVID-19 outbreak has further enhanced this relationship. Last year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations overtook the United States as China’s top trading partner.
In such a situation, ASEAN member nations should be mindful of AUKUS bringing fake presents, although Australia said will continue its commitment to ASEAN Centrality and ASEAN-led mechanism. Given the US’s recent behavior, ASEAN members should expect overtures from AUKUS at the national level aimed at fracturing the bloc’s cohesiveness, since ASEAN has been hesitant to stand with the US in its geopolitical battle with China. How ASEAN official should respond to AUKUS is likely to be discussed at the bloc’s summit meeting later this month.
It would be helpful to the area and beyond if ASEAN could establish a common-will firewall to protect regional peace and stability, preventing AUKUS from worming its way into any chinks in the bloc’s unanimity and tearing it apart.
AUKUS has indeed become very dilemmatic for ASEAN, especially with the existence of ASEAN norms and principles, ASEAN needs to be careful to rethink this while maintaining the ASEAN Way. Those are being the reasons why ASEAN’s silence behind the AUKUS agreement. AUKUS is a new challenge for ASEAN Centrality, even now, observers are still waiting for ASEAN’s response. How ASEAN views AUKUS will determine not only the future of the Southeast Asia region, but also the future of the Indo-Pacific region.
On the other hand, a significant incident in the region involving a US submarine should enlighten those who are still perplexed about the negative impact AUKUS may have on regional security. The USS Connecticut, a nuclear-powered submarine, collided with an undersea object in the South China Sea on October 2.
So far, the US has declined to offer any further information regarding the incident, much alone explain what the submarine was doing in the area or whether the mishap resulted in a radioactive leak that harmed the local marine ecology.
As a result of this reckless approach, ASEAN should reconsider the appropriateness of having more nuclear-powered submarines in the region in the future, and extrapolate the risks posed by the US’ tactics in its “race” with China.
We are faced with two sides in seeing changes in the dynamic realities construction in the Indo-Pacific region due to the AUKUS agreement. First, ASEAN needs to rethink its norms and principles facing the anarchy systems. Second, we need to acknowledge the balance of power that neorealism glorifies has failed again in explaining how the balance of power is able to maintain international security and peace. So, if several countries respond to the AUKUS defense alliance as an old way of the cold war, then ASEAN’s role in maintaining centrality, as well as ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is very important and needs to be recognized.
The ASEAN-centered regional cooperation architecture has shown to be successful in supporting regional peace and prosperity through their Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). Especially for this case, ASEAN member countries must consider their commitments to Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ) and Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN). It is something that all ASEAN members should value and uphold. Not to mention the fact that it is in their best interests. However, challenges may come from domestic problems, ASEAN member countries must be able to harmonize state interests and common interests.
*Hafizha Dwi Ulfa is a Research Assistant of the Indonesian International Relations Study Center with focus analysis in ASEAN, East Asia, and Indo-Pacific studies.