The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Collin Koh Swee Lean – research fellow and coordinator of the United States Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore – is the 291st in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Explain Canberra’s geopolitical calculus in joining a security partnership with the U.K. and U.S. (AUKUS).
Looming in the background would be a rising and increasingly assertive China, and the geopolitical uncertainties it poses to the region. In this regard, an ASEAN-centric regional architecture has limited utility. At the same time, there should be pressing concerns about how the U.S., which is long viewed as an offshore stabilizing power in the region, might be gradually “squeezed out” of the region with China’s increasing military power. Australia is possibly seeking to further entrench the continued role of the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific region, leverage this new security partnership as an anchor of regional peace and stability, while drawing from this military technological reservoir for its defense modernization and buildup.
In what ways will Australia benefit from information-sharing with the U.S. and U.K. on artificial intelligence, long-range strike capabilities, and underwater systems?
Australia is home to one of the region’s most advanced defense R&D and innovation hubs and the country has also pre-existing programs on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. However, if long-term defense modernization needs are to be fulfilled, it becomes necessary to draw from the know-how of its close partners. Its alliance with the U.S., in particular, provides readier access to some of the niche capabilities that the Australian Defense Force requires yet indigenous capacity has yet to become self-sufficient in providing. AUKUS therefore provides a channel for critical technological insights/inputs to Australia’s preexisting indigenous defense programs, which include R&D on future underwater systems.
Explain the correlation between AUKUS and the Quad in increasing Canberra’s leadership in the Indo-Pacific region.
AUKUS and the Quad may well reflect a growing pattern of what we can call “coalitions of the willing” – to bridge the gap between bilateral strategic relationships and broad multilateral frameworks that are chiefly presented in the region by the abovementioned ASEAN-centric security architecture. Australia draws different strategic benefits through cooperation in AUKUS and the Quad. In the former, there’s what appears to be a heavier focus on military-technical and defense aspects whereas in the latter, a much more broad-ranging slew of initiatives that go beyond defense and security to include, amongst others, COVID-19 vaccine cooperation. Yet AUKUS and the Quad cannot be seen as mutually exclusive – they overlap in some of the memberships and are characterized by intertwined bilateral alliances and strategic partnerships. Therefore, AUKUS and the Quad are complementary, and this gives Australia a wide berth of strategic options in pursuit of its Indo-Pacific interests.
Analyze Singapore’s perspective on the potential impacts of AUKUS on Indo-Pacific security dynamics.
Based on what transpired from the initial phone call between the prime ministers of Australia and Singapore, and the latest, most elaborate rundown on the island city-state’s stance by foreign minister Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, it is possible to surmise that Singapore is generally supportive of AUKUS. All three parties in this new setup are longtime defense and security partners of Singapore. The role of AUKUS in buttressing regional peace and stability might be viewed in the same light as how Singapore views the respective roles played by key regional powers, not least the U.S.
Yet at the same time, being a small state, Singapore is sensitive toward and inevitably concerned about the growing geopolitical uncertainties that arise from strategic competition between these players, and how that could impact the role of ASEAN, which has been a cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy. Singapore’s perspective can be said to be cautious, though the undertone can be interpreted to be positive on the whole.
Identify the key factors behind the Biden administration’s decision to form this defense pact with Australia and the U.K.
The first key factor would be a rising China and its growing assertiveness, not least also with an eye on the Asian giant’s increasing military might and gradual erosion of the American military edge in the region. This is part of Washington’s evolving Indo-Pacific posture, and in line with what the Biden administration described as competing with Beijing from a position of strength – which centers around U.S. alliances and security partnerships. I’ll anticipate this latter point to be borne out more strongly in the upcoming Global Posture Review and 2022 National Defense Strategy.
The second key factor would be the Biden administration’s apparent reliance on these “coalitions of the willing,” such as AUKUS and the Quad, than on ASEAN-centric institutions as an effective counterweight to China. In fact, since its inauguration in January, the Biden administration has expended more focus on the Quad for instance, than ASEAN. This is, of course, not to say that Washington doesn’t view ASEAN as important; just that the Biden administration appears to be engaging ASEAN with its eyes wide open to the regional bloc’s obvious strategic limitations.