Asia Defense | Security | Southeast Asia

AUKUS, Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific: Beyond Cyclical Perception Management?

A key question about the trilateral security agreement is how it will eventually fit within the broader regional security architecture.

AUKUS, Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific: Beyond Cyclical Perception Management?

From left: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announce the AUKUS submarine deal in San Diego, California, U.S., Mar. 13, 2023.

Credit: The White House

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recently made headlines when he noted that ASEAN ought to view the Australia-U.K.-U.S. trilateral security agreement (AUKUS) as more of a partner rather than a competitor. Beyond his individual comments and the focus on recent public statements issued by ASEAN governments to date relative to earlier range of concerns from nonproliferation to regional instability, the headlines highlight the broader question of how AUKUS could fit in within the overall regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific, beyond the question of cyclical perception management.

The fact that new arrangements can face challenges in embedding or socializing themselves within Southeast Asia or Asia more broadly is far from surprising, given realities such as the sheer diversity of the region, perceptions of shifting balances of power, lingering distrust and rivalries, and the patchwork of institutions in the regional architecture. These include the five U.S. treaty alliances, ASEAN-centered mechanisms, and other multilateral and minilateral institutions.

Nor is this embeddedness challenge new. In just the second half of the twentieth century alone, for example, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization ultimately proved short-lived, while other mechanisms, such as the Five Power Defense Arrangements between Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the U.K., have outlasted their initial purpose. More recently, the Quad’s increasing focus on providing public goods in addition to addressing issues such as China’s assertiveness has shown signs of increasing the comfort others have with it and managing previous perception gaps. Meanwhile, receptivity to China’s recently-floated Global Security Initiative still remains unclear.

Yet that challenge has also gotten arguably much more pronounced in the twenty-first century, and particularly so over the past few years. As the U.S. and China both invest more in building out institutions of their own amid intensified rivalry, new initiatives can quickly become seen by some states not clearly siding with either Washington or Beijing – or (mis)characterized by others – as clearer markers of alignment in an environment where some countries would prefer to adopt more of a wait-and-see attitude while shaping them in line with their own interests. Anxieties about centrality have also risen within ASEAN, which – in part by default – has emerged as the convening platform for major powers to engage regionally, even as contending with issues such as the South China Sea or developing an ongoing response to the Indo-Pacific concept far exceeds its initial purpose.

AUKUS is no exception. Rightly or wrongly, the way that AUKUS was publicly perceived at the outset despite its more comprehensive nature – with a focus on hard power amid China’s assertiveness and with nuclear-powered submarines at its center – meant that this would create initial public discomfort in some circles, even if there is private acknowledgment about the balance of power realities at play. To their credit, policymakers from AUKUS countries have since tried their best to manage some of the fallout and consult more with key regional countries as the arrangement develops. Public statements from within Southeast Asia in particular have also since become relatively more positive, though concerns remain on various grounds and are publicly expressed through points that include non-proliferation, regional stability, and even claims of equivalence between it and the China-led security arrangements that Beijing has continued to advance.

Yet apart from cyclical perception management, the broader, longer-term question is how AUKUS is going to be viewed within the overall regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific. On the one hand, AUKUS could largely continue to be a mechanism that advances independently without any consistent, meaningful engagement with ASEAN-centered institutions and Southeast Asian states beyond periodic consultations and assurances by individual members of the grouping. That itself is neither inherently problematic nor unique. For instance, the five U.S. treaty alliances have each developed on their own trajectory, even if they provide opportunities for some networking between them which others can then dock on to, and, in cases like the U.S.-Japan alliance, they can contribute to wider regional stability in the eyes of some Southeast Asian states.

There may even be a stronger case for initially going slower in this realm with AUKUS at this stage, given that the new boats themselves will supposedly not be ready until the 2040s, and with there still being some challenges being worked out within AUKUS itself as well as within both countries. Nonetheless, this would also constitute a more limited form of socialization within Asia’s regional architecture.

On the other hand, AUKUS could eventually grow to adopt a more two-track-like approach of continuing its focus on hard power capabilities among the three countries involved, while also finding occasional opportunities to engage other countries and perhaps even contributing to public goods. This would go beyond just managing perceptions of individual Southeast Asian countries and at least attempt to showcase to them how the arrangement directly meets interests and needs. This is not altogether impossible, as the Quad has illustrated thus far with its foray into issues like vaccines in spite of what some naysayers had originally suggested

For AUKUS, while the headlines may continue to focus on Pillar I and submarine capabilities, the opportunities lie in Pillar II focused on advanced capabilities in areas like artificial intelligence, cyber, and innovation, which already are on the ASEAN agenda and could see more interest among a wider array of Southeast Asian states if extended beyond just geopolitics and security and more directly connected to national priorities like economic development or education. Though it is still early days, we have already begun to see some rhetorical framing around how this pillar and AUKUS more generally can factor into wider regional dynamics. Evolving publicizing touchpoints discussed within individual U.S. alliances and partnerships, such as with Japan or the Philippines, could also be among the first steps in a gradual process of socialization in a diverse region.

Whatever trajectory AUKUS takes, it is worth pointing out that framing it as part of a wider regional approach, with each of the three countries upping their game in the Indo-Pacific with Southeast Asia as a focus, would not be out of step with strategic realities. Though the AUKUS launch announcement back in September 2021 was narrowly focused on submarines, it could just as easily have acknowledged broader regional work between the two countries evident even in the separate Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations meeting that was held alongside it, which mentioned priorities such as ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook and the South China Sea, alongside functional priorities of interest to the broader region like cyber, space, and supply chains.

Similarly, U.S.-U.K. Indo-Pacific consultations already acknowledge the need to coordinate the implementation of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy and the U.K.’s Indo-Pacific tilt, especially as London continues to recalibrate its international engagement post-Brexit and amid connections between the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic theaters as seen in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

All this is not to understate the challenges of socializing a mechanism like AUKUS within the wider regional order. Though AUKUS is at times mentioned alongside the Quad and other minilateral mechanisms, features more unique to it can feed into perceptions that are tougher to manage, such as its hard power focus, which China can then use to accuse its members and any supporters of destabilization, or its more so-called “Anglophone” nature at a time when there is a need for Washington and its allies to be more inclusive in the Indo-Pacific if they are to build wider support for managing Beijing’s growing assertiveness that goes beyond traditionally like-minded countries. Additionally, as previously noted with respect to Southeast Asia, ASEAN’s regard for its centrality and the diversity of views within the subregion likely means that there will continue to be pockets of reservation or ambivalence towards an institution like AUKUS, irrespective of the best efforts at socialization.

At the same time, as we have repeatedly seen with cases ranging from the Quad’s multiple iterations in the twenty-first century to the quick momentum that the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus generated since its start in 2010 out to its annualization in 2017, institutions have the ability to evolve beyond what may have been initially perceived and despite initial challenges, they may encounter. The evolutionary possibilities ought to be greater in the case of minilateral mechanisms, since part of their appeal is to provide more flexibility relative to multilateral ones, rather than being straightjacketed by the exact configurations of meetings and agendas. That humility and appreciation for history should guide how we assess AUKUS and its evolving position in the regional order, given that it is still very much early days.