The following is part of a series of APLN analyses by experts and members assessing the implications of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) deal.
The announcement of AUKUS caught many states in Southeast Asia by surprise. The cautious statements from the region that followed are understandable given the lack of information of this new trilateral arrangement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. To be sure, new security arrangements – be it enhancing the security and defence posture of one state, particularly in acquiring new nuclear capabilities, raise a number of concerns for ASEAN states.
First, is the objective of AUKUS as the latest coalition in the Indo-Pacific. The establishment of the QUAD with US, Australia, Japan and India had already raised qualms about the future of regional order in Asia since this minilateral arrangement is perceived to contain China. Although AUKUS is but another addition to the region’s security architecture, any framework that excludes China undermines ASEAN’s approach to an inclusive, peaceful and stable order.
Second, while AUKUS is meant to help Australia build its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines as well as deepen security cooperation among allies of the U.S., ASEAN countries worry that the acquisition of nuclear technology, even if not meant for building nuclear weapons can further escalate the on-going arms race in the region. Despite assurances on the use of technology of military nuclear propulsion to power submarines, increase speed, range and improve stealth, its strategic value may prove to be destabilising to the region.
Although some ASEAN countries welcome the display of power to counter China’s growing assertiveness and aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, this new coalition on nuclear cooperation heightens nuclear security risks. More importantly also, the lack of clarity about the purpose of this nuclear technology threatens ASEAN’s Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) and can further weaken the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT).
Last but certainly not least, any new coalition that appears to divide rather than bring countries together heightens major power rivalry and competition in the region– a condition that ASEAN has tried to mitigate with the establishment of more inclusive ASEAN-led institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit. ASEAN countries eschew having to choose sides, preferring cooperative security practices to alliance building and deterrence. Thus, the emergence of QUAD and now AUKUS have remarkably shifted the security dynamics in Asia, forcing ASEAN to seriously re-think how best to navigate these winds of change.
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