What does AUKUS mean for Indo-Pacific states?

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Xue Gong, Anna Powles, Rajesh Rajagopalan and Tomohiko Satake

Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Rankin seen during AUSINDEX 21, a biennial maritime exercise between the Royal Australian Navy and the Indian Navy on 5 September 2021, Darwin, Australia. Photo: POIS Yuri Ramsey via Getty Images

As public debate continues in western capitals about the impact of the AUKUS defense pact on relations between Europe and the United States and their attempts to balance China, an area that remains consistently neglected is the treaty’s impact on regional security and politics in the Indo-Pacific. In this blogpost we asked academics working on the region to highlight the key actors’ responses to the pact and its implications for regional security.

ASEAN’s response (Xue Gong)

AUKUS has triggered worries about how ASEAN fits into the evolving regional architecture. Perceptions vary by country, with states like Vietnam quietly embracing AUKUS as a counter to potential Chinese aggression in the region. But most ASEAN nations, especially Indonesia and Malaysia, remain suspicious and anxious about the minilateral security partnership, seeing it as a challenge to ‘ASEAN centrality’. An additional concern is the pact’s impact on the region’s military balance, which risks resulting in an arms race and weakening ASEAN’s efforts to maintain Southeast Asia as a ‘Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality’.

Moreover, AUKUS represents a Western-dominated narrative about regional order, side-lining regional states like Indonesia — a de-facto regional leader. With the raging COVID-19 pandemic and the need for economic recovery, the region may not want AUKUS to further accelerate the growing rivalry between China and the United States. Rather, many prefer to strike a balance between the two and seek greater value in cooperation beyond security.

Dr Xue Gong is an Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Read her article in International Affairs here.

India’s response (Rajesh Rajagopalan)

India has not officially welcomed or opposed the AUKUS, simply noting that it is a security alliance. This neutrality itself is a departure, because India has traditionally opposed military alliances. Thus, India’s response is, in effect, a nod and a wink of support. New Delhi’s position is understandable — even if Indian officials will not say so openly, they likely welcome the AUKUS because it strengthens India’s strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi’s position is tied to its continued dismay at China’s behaviour, which Indian officials have repeatedly identified as the source of Sino-Indian problems. This said, India’s wider strategy remains evasive balancing, and as such it is uncomfortable with formally joining military alliances. Overall, while Indian officials argue that the Quad (the security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States) is ‘for things, it’s not against somebody’, India will continue to welcome any effort to counter China, a purpose AUKUS serves.

Rajesh Rajagopalan is a Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Read his article in International Affairs here.

Indonesia’s response (Dewi Fortuna Anwar)

While Indonesia did not react to Australia’s earlier plan to purchase 12 diesel-powered submarines from France, Canberra’s decision to acquire eight nuclear-powered vessels has roused deep concerns in Jakarta. Indonesia has largely been silent about the wider AUKUS security alliance, but the nuclear-powered submarine component of the deal has been a source of tension. In response, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a five-point statement on its website on 17 September 2021. While the statement ‘takes note cautiously’ of Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, it also states that ‘Indonesia is deeply concerned about the continuing arms race and power projection in the region’ and stresses the importance of Australia’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. Additionally, the Indonesian government has called on Australia to maintain regional peace and stability in accordance with the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South East Asia, and for all parties to respect international laws including the 1982 UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea.

Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar is a Research Professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). Read her article in International Affairs here.

Japan’s response (Tomohiko Satake)

The Japanese government has so far welcomed the creation of AUKUS. The Japanese Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and Chief Cabinet Secretary all expressed that Japan welcomes the launch of AUKUS as a contribution to the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific region. Japan sees AUKUS as one of various multilateral frameworks, such as ASEAN, the EU and the QUAD, and wishes to ‘continue to advance dialogue and cooperation under various frameworks with related countries toward the major objective of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific’. It was also reported that government sources welcome Australia having a greater ‘radius of actions’, creating more opportunities for Japan and Australia to work together in Japan’s surrounding region. Some speculate that AUKUS could stimulate Japan’s desire to acquire nuclear submarines. However, Japan’s new leader Fumio Kishida has expressed reservations in this regard and favours improving working conditions and support for Japan’s existing submarines, rather than seeking nuclear subs.

Dr Tomohiko Satake is a Senior Fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies, Tokyo. Read his co-authored article with John Hemmings in International Affairs here.

New Zealand’s response (Anna Powles)

While New Zealand’s reaction to AUKUS has been muted, the implications for its alliance with Australia are significant. Jacinda Ardern’s response highlighted two core principles of New Zealand’s foreign policy. First, Ardern addressed concerns about regional militarization and New Zealand’s position as a small state by emphasising that all partners should focus on the delivery of peace and stability and the preservation of the international rules based system. Second, Ardern reiterated that New Zealand is a Pacific nation and views AUKUS in terms of the region’s best interests. Both points reflect New Zealand’s awareness of how its Pacific neighbours perceive AUKUS in a region facing the legacy of nuclear testing and ongoing strategic competition. Lastly, while Ardern insisted that AUKUS would not impact New Zealand’s security ties with Australia, the US, and UK, it reflects a growing divergence in the ANZAC alliance in terms of military capabilities that will test New Zealand’s capacity as a junior partner. Though Australian nuclear-powered submarines will not be permitted in New Zealand waters under its nuclear-free policy, this does not prevent New Zealand from engaging as an AUKUS partner on other issues, such as cybersecurity.

Dr Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University. Read her co-authored article with Joanne Wallis in International Affairs here.

This blogpost was commissioned by Joseph Hills, the Editorial Assistant at International Affairs.

All views expressed in this blogpost are individual not institutional.

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