Whereas the QUAD and AUKUS aim to place the US at the centre of the Indo-Pacific region as a bulwark against China, these two different yet interconnected strands of US policies are unlikely to be accepted by the ASEAN. Specifically, these projects could overpower ASEAN, as well as neutralising the regional configuration’s own political ambitions as the centre of economic activity and growth. A dominant US/UK/Australian position in the region naturally comes at the expense of a regional system that ASEAN countries have been nurturing for some years. It is the same regional focus that led these countries to enter into a trade deal with China, one of the biggest trade pacts ever signed in the history of the world. Therefore, at a time when the ASEAN countries are looking to build upon the momentum generated through the trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and finalise the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea in 2022, the war-drums the US is beating through the QUAD and AUKUS could derail the progress these countries have made in their quest to normalise ties with China. For the US, this normalisation is counterproductive. An ASEAN-China normalisation minimises the space for the US and its allies to exploit tensions to their own advantage.
Specifically, the US’ evolving outlook for the Indo-Pacific is at odds with ASEAN’s own outlook on the Indo-Pacific. While ASEAN countries do aim to adhere to a rule-based maritime system, they aim to do this not by appropriating Western help, but mainly by developing regionally negotiated mechanisms. In this behalf, the Code of Conduct that ASEAN has been negotiating with China for quite some time now fits the overall outlook for the region that the grouping offered in 2019 and reaffirmed in 2020/21.
So, whereas ASEAN’s own outlook articulates an inclusive and cooperative “vista” on the framework with the hope to present “an inclusive meeting place for the competing visions of regional order offered by great and regional players” and to maintain ASEAN’s relevance and Southeast Asia’s strategic autonomy in this discourse, the nuclearization of the region through AUKUS appears to be completely antithetical to the inclusive ideas of these countries; hence, the potential for growing conflict of interest between ASEAN and the West. Under AUKUS, the US will transfer nuclear powered submarines to Australia, as well as giving access to under-water drone technology. The ostensible purpose of this deal is solely to maintain balance of power in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China.
So, despite the fact that Joe Biden reiterated that the US was/is not starting a new cold war with China, the AUKUS deal calls for rotations of US fighters and bombers to northern Australia and potentially to “acquire more rotational basing for its submarines in Perth, Western Australia.” Therefore, the US will eventually be using Australia for its surveillance and deterrence of China in the South China Sea. This is specifically a sort of global power competition typically characteristic of cold war. It is essentially seeking to build alliances and enlist support of as many regional countries as possible to side-line China.
ASEAN countries are acutely aware of the dangers that this new configuration and anti-China build-up poses. Indeed, AUKUS, in many ways, is in variance with the purpose and intent of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ), a pact signed by ASEAN member states on 15 December, 1995 as a commitment to preserve the ASEAN as a region free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. AUKUS is also a misfit for the region in view of the ASEAN “Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality Declaration” signed by the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN in 1971 in Kuala Lumpur. This treaty envisioned an ASEAN region free from interference by outside powers, practicing peaceful coexistence and preserving the independence and sovereignty of individual states. The fact that the new security arrangement is displacing existing arrangements means ASEAN has many legitimate concerns.
Australia’s prime minister recently spoke with Indonesia’s president to assuage his concerns with regards to threat of nuclearization that the AUKUS poses. Indonesian foreign ministry expressed its deep concerns “over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.” The foreign ministry further called on Australia to maintain its commitment to regional peace and stability, and reiterated its respect for international law.
These concerns are rooted in a realisation that the US plan to revamp the QUAD and nuclearize the region through AUKUS are more focused on containing China than about assisting ASEAN maintain its own centrality in the region. In other words, for ASEAN the potential payoffs that the QUAD and AUKUS offer do not outweigh the actual loses that the region will have to suffer by accepting the US overlordship. Not only will ASEAN lose its own centrality, but will also be left with facing an aggressive and assertive China. On top of it is the fact that taking the US as an ultimate security guarantor is a risky business. Its recent conduct in Afghanistan and its withdrawal from the Middle East leaving its allies ‘un-protected’ makes accepting the US as a reliable security partner quite difficult.
For a majority of ASEAN countries, the increasing US presence and role in the Indo-pacific could equally prompt China into strengthening its own military footprint. This is besides the fact that ASEAN countries’ support for AUKUS could potentially jeopardise the on-going negotiations for the Code of Conduct for South China Sea.
There is, therefore, not enough potential in the US proposed arrangements for the regional countries, except Australia. If geo-politics can be understood as a game in which actors take steps by calculating potential benefits and loses, jumping on the US bandwagon does not outweigh the potential benefits ASEAN countries can reap by not militarising and nuclearizing the issues.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.