Balancing Beijing: AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific

By Shravan Krishnan

Pictured is the [nuclear powered] HMS Ambush returning to HMNB Clyde in Scotland.
Flickr: Defense Industry

When the eponymous trio announced the 2021 Australia-United Kingdom-United States Partnership (AUKUS), which will result in the United States and United Kingdom transferring eight nuclear-propelled submarines to Australia and closer cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, it was unclear how the countries most affected by this pact would react. Between aspiring global powers with nuclear capabilities, avowed non-nuclear states, staunch U.S. allies, and decidedly neutral states, various factors drive the different perspectives of Indo-Pacific powers on AUKUS as China looms large in the background.

Broader Context: Thucydides Trap

AUKUS is a bold attempt at reasserting Anglo-American supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. This story is not new: as rising powers flex its muscles, the established powers seek new approaches to mitigating challenges to the post-Cold War global order. Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides theorized that when a rising power threatened the status quo, the existing power would employ every means at its disposal to check the rise of said new power—also known as the Thucydides trap. AUKUS is simply one more step to that end.

While this is obviously an issue for China’s ambition of regional hegemony, AUKUS will be less influential for states that already fall under its sphere of influence. It is worth noting that most, if not all, of the countries in the Indo-Pacific are beneficiaries of the liberal international rules-based order. With a system of well-defined rules: trade, development, and economic prosperity are possible. These are states that rely, in large part, on the principle of freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas for the movement of goods. To many Indo-Pacific countries, AUKUS represents a key reassertion of the rules-based order. However, this does not imply universal support across the Indo-Pacific.

Southeast Asia’s Reaction

In Australia’s immediate backyard, Southeast Asia’s reactions to AUKUS have been varied. The region, though a consortium of varied states with unique perspectives, has a history of acting as a monolithic bloc through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to amplify its negotiating power at the global table. The union, which operates on a system of consensus-based decision making, often reflects a sense of Southeast Asian unity. Yet, ASEAN has displayed a rare disunited front. 

Two of the region’s heavyweights, Malaysia and Indonesia, have expressed concerns over the potential of an arms race in the Indo-Pacific due to the nuclear-submarine technology AUKUS will provide Australia. Although they are both cautious, neither outright condemns the deal nor expresses explicit support for it, given their respective relationships with the United States and Australia and the potential liabilities of coming out with an aggressively anti-China stance. Both Malaysia and Indonesia have vested interests in the South China Sea and would certainly welcome a firmer hand in favor of their claims over China’s Nine Dash Line. On the other hand, the risk of pushing China too far and compelling an increase in Chinese claims is too great to support the deal outright. 

Singapore and Vietnam have expressed cautious support, welcoming AUKUS as a stabilizing force, but cautioning against provoking further conflict. Singapore has a history of involving the United States in its security posture, and a long-standing partnership with Australia, and thus has not expressed outright opposition to the pact. Given Singapore’s strategic position in Asia, and a persistent strain in Singaporean foreign policy to not officially align with any particular bloc, its government has been very careful to not outright oppose China—though the island nation’s representatives have made statements in favor of the rules-based order. 

Vietnam is more welcoming of AUKUS as a means of an increased capability to deter further Chinese encroachment into the South China Sea. Like Singapore, Vietnam reflects a pragmatic posture of involving the United States and its allies in its security while also taking great precautions against antagonizing China. 

Some states, like Thailand, a historically important U.S. ally and one of the only major ones outside the Philippines in Southeast Asia, have had little to say about AUKUS. 

Overall, the posture adopted by the key power in Southeast Asia reflects a caution for the  implications of AUKUS with respect to relations with China but also recognizes that AUKUS fills a large security gap that ASEAN cannot fill due to the constraints imposed by the consensus-based model. With Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam all being the controlling parties of crucial waterways of Southeast Asia and Indonesia being right next door to Australia, the cooperation (and implicit support) of all four will be crucial for the tactical and operational viability of the nuclear submarines that AUKUS proposes to provide. 

What About the Rest of the Region?

Southeast Asia, however, is only one piece of the puzzle. The Indo-Pacific is a large region, and Japan and India are arguably more invested in this venture than the countries of Southeast Asia. Like Southeast Asia, Japan and India have special interests in a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) while also recognizing the need to not explicitly antagonize China. Instead, as Japan and India both understand, there is more to be gained in constraining China’s ability to violate the rules of international law while also engaging with them. The long-term goal is to eventually compel China to negotiate and participate in the global system in which both Japan and India have been active participants.

Japan and India are also both part of the revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), alongside the United States and Australia—it is not a stretch to consider the implications that the nuclear submarines provided by AUKUS would have for the Quad’s mission. However, all countries concerned have stressed that AUKUS and the Quad are unrelated.

However, China’s aggressive posture around the disputed islands in the East China Sea has raised concerns in Tokyo about the need for more offensive capabilities. These concerns are supported by a movement in Japanese politics to roll back some of the restrictions on its military capabilities, dating back to the end of the Second World War.
With that in mind, Japan is particularly excited by AUKUS due to the increased tactical capability to deploy into disputed waters and deter Chinese activities in the area. Given the alignment of the deal with Japan’s FOIP foreign policy posture, Tokyo has certainly welcomed AUKUS, but not without some concerns about what it would imply for China’s outlook on disputed territories. 

India presents a more complex case. Although during the Cold War India was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, the onset of the twenty-first century saw an India that began aligning more and more with the United States. Despite this, India remains decidedly unaffiliated with any one global bloc, stubbornly so at times, so its divided attitude towards AUKUS reflects a shift in Indian foreign policy/grand strategy. Though outwardly ambivalent towards AUKUS, India in the twenty-first century has proven that it is seriously concerned about the overarching influence of China.

A Chinese-dominated Asia would be disastrous for Indian power on a global stage. Indian foreign policy has also long been aligned with liberal institutionalism, given India’s active participation in shaping the rules-based international order through multilateral institutions like the United Nations. Thus, India sees Chinese aggression in the South and East China Seas as a clear and prescient threat to the system that it has helped to build, but at the same time is wary of being too provocative considering the issue of the shared border.

It follows that India should therefore align itself with groups such as the Quad to check Chinese influence and expansionism in Asia—but this should not be taken as broader Indian alignment with Western political and strategic goals. India maintains its conviction that it will march to the beat of its own drum and that any partnerships it forms (having no formal alliances) will be marriages of convenience, i.e., that there are no permanent friends or enemies (save for Pakistan). Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the potential boost for the Quad’s tactical and power projection capabilities when the new submarines arrive in Australia may encourage Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s growingly defiant posture towards China.

The Taiwan Question

With the onset of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, attention in the Indo-Pacific shifted, quite naturally, to the Taiwan question. Taiwan is, of course, the perennial thorn in Beijing’s side, and re-capturing it would cement Chinese President Xi Jinping’s legitimacy. Xi is dealing with a hotter than comfortable seat amidst repeated lockdowns and quarantines in China while the rest of the world re-opens post-pandemic. Following the Chinese military drills in the East China Sea around Taiwan on the back of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island on August 2, there is a new question concerning the strategic calculus of AUKUS: could it serve as a check against a potential Chinese invasion?

Cautious Support

The Indo-Pacific is a rapidly evolving, dynamic theater of politics and military operations. AUKUS is simply one small change in the strategic climate of the region. While China is opposed to AUKUS, given what the deal implies for its power projection in Asia, it is broadly evident that Asian countries have mixed reactions to the agreement. The Malaysian and Indonesian concern about fuelling an arms race is indeed pertinent.

Still, the lack of an outright opposition to the deal from any of the major powers in the Indo-Pacific is telling. These countries are active participants and beneficiaries of the rules-based international order. They would much prefer to have this order enforced rather than overridden and become vassal states of China—especially Taiwan.

There is no doubt that China, too, will begin developing measures to counter the tactical capabilities of the nuclear submarines when they are delivered in the near future. Whether AUKUS is a necessary step for joint Anglo-American security is questionable, given the unpredictability of the security climate in the region. Still, AUKUS does present a credible deterrent to the expansion of Chinese interests in the Indo-Pacific, though only time will tell how effective that deterrent will be.

Shravan Krishnan is a graduate student at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs, pursuing a Master’s in International Security with concentrations in Intelligence and Asian Studies. He is a regular contributor for the Realist Review.

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