The public announcement of the AUKUS Trilateral Security Partnership between Australia, United Kingdom and the United States has been generating diverse reactions on behalf of state actors as well as global think-tanks. Of course, some would acknowledge that the said agreement – interpreted either as technological or defensive in nature – is in fact a new trilateral program that may turn as one of the most debated security partnerships of the decade, accurately reflecting the geopolitical developments in the Indo-Pacific. With Australia, UK and US as parties, the agreement is presented as a joint effort to modernise the military technology of the primary beneficiary, Australia. According to the Joint Leaders Statement released by the White House, the AUKUS partners will share “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.”A first step will aim at providing nuclear powered submarines - yet conventionally armed - to be operated by the Royal Australian Navy.
Such a landmark development will include Australia in a select club of nations possessing advanced defence capabilities, including China, France, India and Russia, besides the United Kingdom and the United States.
Following the AUKUS Joint Leaders Statement, the contracting parties base their partnership on “our enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order” and seek to “strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests, building on our longstanding and ongoing bilateral ties”, while “recognizing our common tradition as maritime democracies”. According to the Statement, AUKUS will “help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region”, thus offering a clear-cut view on the geographic area it is set to develop.
However, according to the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, AUKUS “will gravely undermine regional peace and stability, aggravate arms race and impair international nuclear non-proliferation efforts.” In a rare statement for diplomatic language, the Chinese official also added that such partnership “runs counter to regional countries' wishes”, despite no official reports of recent high-level meetings with the foreign ministers of the countries in the region.
A similar stance was adopted by Russia, through its Foreign Minister, who described AUKUS as “directed at eroding long-standing universal formats of cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region that exist under the auspices of the association of Southeast Asian nations” and “detrimental to existing world system".
Based on the positions adopted by the Southeast Asian states, at the time being, one may assume the jury is still out on the future relation between AUKUS, a partnership designed for the Indo-Pacific, and the ASEAN Centrality in the region.
Indonesia, as the driving force of ASEAN, warned through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs that it “takes note cautiously” of the decision of the Australian government, and showed overall “concern over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”, thus referring to all parties involved in the Indo-Pacific architecture. According to local analysts, AUKUS represents a call for Indonesia’s “defence modernisation plans must be improved to better prepare for any worst-case scenario if peace and stability in the region is at risk.” However, provided the country’s long stance in advocating a peaceful resolution by advancing dialogue, as opposed to military force, it is less likely that AUKUS may affect Indonesia’s foreign policy approach.
While Malaysia is yet to release an official position on AUKUS, Hishamuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s Minister of Defense and former Foreign Minister, highlighted “the need to exercise self-restraint in the South China Sea to avoid escalating tensions”. The statement was made in relation to a video call with Hussein’s Chinese counterpart. According to Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, widely considered the architect of the country’s fulminant development, an arms race has the potential to severely destabilise the region: “There might be accidents and as we know accidents may lead to war.”
The Philippines’s Duterte was quoted by his spokesperson as having “expressed concern about a regional nuclear arms race. But he will discuss this further with the Cabinet and will come up with a clear position after the meeting of the Cabinet.” The country’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, however, issued a statement according to which “The Philippines welcomes Australia’s decision to establish an enhanced trilateral security partnership with the United States primarily and the United Kingdom.” While one may affirm the Filipino Executive’s statements seem rather diverse may reflect the growing concerns over the security in the region, particularly the maritime disputes with China. In this regard, it is not unlikely that AUKUS could be regarded by some as a viable counteracting force.
In relation to a question on AUKUS, the spokesperson of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “All countries strive for the same goal of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and the world over” and considered that Australia’s efforts to acquire nuclear submarines “must be developed and used for peaceful purposes and serve socio-economic development, ensuring safety for humans and the environment". One may affirm that Vietnam’s confidence in the newly emerged trilateral security partnership could be understood in the key of the territorial dispute between Hanoi and Beijing with regard to the maritime delimitation in the South China Sea.
Following a telephone conversation with his Australian counterpart, the Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong released a press statement manifesting his “hope that AUKUS would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.” The island-country’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakhrishnan referred to AUKUS in the same key, while considering the partnership “part of a larger geo-strategic realignment”, a statement which some may regard as a veiled manifestation of Singapore to possibly join the “realignment” at a later date. One may assume that Singapore’s position echoes the signals sent from Hanoi and Manila with regard to AUKUS.
While the other ASEAN member states are yet to publicly release their official position toward the recently announced trilateral partnership, one may expect that the topic will figure highly on the agenda of the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits and Related Summits, scheduled in October 2021.
European Union’s position on Aukus reflected the surprise caused by the recent developments in the Indo-Pacific. In a media interview, European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen stated that “One of our Member States has been treated in a way that is not acceptable. We want to know what happened and why. We have to clarify that before we can go on with business as usual.” In a similar note, European Council President Charles Michel declared he has found the recent partnership hard to understand explaining that “with the new Joe Biden administration, America is back. This was the historic message sent by this new administration and now we have questions. What does it mean - America is back? Is America back in America or somewhere else? We don't know." EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, also admitted, using a diplomatic language, that “certainly, we were caught by surprise by this announcement". According to a press statement by the European External Action Service, The High Representative discussed with his Australian counterpart and “inquired about the lack of prior consultations and regretted that this partnership excludes European partners, who have a strong presence in the Pacific”. One may argue that the statements above reflect EU’s views on its role in the global community as an integrated strategic player.
From a security standpoint, however, the current geostrategic situation in the Indo-Pacific, along with its worldwide ramifications, nurtures significant complexities and may require more concerted efforts – rather than small multilateral agreements – to be properly addressed. For instance, despite the core objectives of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), certain state actors have chosen not to sign the treaty while openly testing and declaring the possession of nuclear weapons. Some have announced their withdrawal, while others opted for a deliberately ambiguous position regarding their nuclear weapons status.
The central bargain of the NPT, arguably customary law now with 191 state parties to the treaty, seemed to have become ubiquitous: while non-nuclear states agree to never acquire nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapons states agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology.
It would thus be hard, in the light of the tenet above, to place – for instance – the acquisition of nuclear submarines. Neither nuclear weapons per se, nor designed for civilian/ peaceful use, the nuclear submarines and their usage may present a particular importance for the continuous upgrade of international law.
Certainly, the idea of non-interference as ultimate form of security and denuclearization has found numerous other embodiments at regional level as well. As early as 1968, the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality(ZOPFAN), a Malaysian initiative, envisaged South East Asia “free from any form or manner of interference by outside Powers”. A significant step forward has been taken in 1995 when the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone(SEANWFZ) was signed by the ASEAN member states to preserve the region free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
Along with Latin America and the Carribean, South Pacific, Africa, and Central Asia, Southeast Asia is highly regarded as one of the five Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in the world.
While the nuclearization of military equipment is not and should not be regarded as equivalent of nuclear-weapon possession, it might be interpreted as less necessary developmentin the increasingly-complex evolutions in the Indo-Pacific, which may affect the ASEAN Centrality in the region.
Clearly, one should take into account the reactive dimension of such initiative. Indeed, neither territorial claims estranged from the existing treaties in maritime international law, nor nuclearization of military equipment in a fragile regional architecture could be regarded as developments favourable to the spirit of “the ASEAN way”.
In this regard, such developments should constitute not a deterrent, but an impetus for ASEAN to further – and more vocally – promote its Centrality in the region, as well as the fundamental principles upon set in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, 1976:
1. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations;
2. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;
3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;
4. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner;
5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force;
6. Effective cooperation among themselves.
Moreover, the recent developments may be interpreted as a responsibility of the global communityto react in a peaceful manner, so that such isolated developments would not become precedents for a future arms race.
Indeed, not an arms race, but the voice of diplomacy, mutual respect, and understanding remain the most effective and efficient tools in preserving peace in the Asia-Pacific region.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.