International relations, National security | Southeast Asia

8 November 2021

ASEAN member states’ divergent responses to the AUKUS alliance aside, the organisation is now competing with yet another regional forum – it must work to protect its centrality, Lukas Singarimbun writes.

While Australia’s media, especially in the wake of French President Emmanuel Macron’s criticisms of its handling, has focused on Australia’s announced acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines as part of its new trilateral arrangement between the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia, AUKUS is not simply a weapons deal.

The agreement also focuses on enhancing coordination on undersea security, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence in the Asia-Pacific region, opening the door to a wide range of potential cooperation.

As it did with the French president, AUKUS has attracted a reaction from many states, but one response that has flown under the radar is that of ASEAN member states. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ASEAN member states’ responses have been quite varied.

Singapore and the Philippines are openly supporting the implementation of the AUKUS, probably viewing it as balancing against China’s increasing assertiveness in the region and hoping that it will constructively contribute to maintaining peace.

Meanwhile, Indonesia and Malaysia have been less positive, worrying that AUKUS will encourage military competition in the region, and that it could even trigger an arms race. Vietnam, for its own part, has chosen to sit on the fence, with the country’s officials taking a ‘wait-and-see’ approach.

More on this: ASEAN’s dilemma in the South China Sea

This divergence amongst ASEAN member states is further driving apart their views on competition between the United States and China, and their differing stances on AUKUS present deeper problems for ASEAN’s future.

Some ASEAN states, like Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, are much more economically dependent on China’s support for national economic development than others, while countries like the Philippines and Singapore are much more dependent upon the American military for help, especially with China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

The varied response from ASEAN member states towards AUKUS is another example of the growing disunity of ASEAN voices in responding to security and political dynamics in the region.

Moreover, it has shown yet again the waning of ASEAN’s centrality to building a peaceful region. Far from being able to implement concrete action in response, ASEAN is ensnared in its own inability even to speak cohesively and directly about the formation of AUKUS.

Finally, the formation of the AUKUS itself, not just the divided response to it, may be accentuating ASEAN’s already waning centrality. AUKUS and the recent revitalisation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue show that increasingly the United States is coming to rely on non-ASEAN forums to serve its interests in the region, particularly in responding to China’s assertiveness.

More on this: ASEAN-Australia: it’s all about peace and prosperity

With the formation of AUKUS, ASEAN is being cut out of yet another space for cooperation, despite the fact that the nuclear-powered submarines at the heart of the agreement are more than likely to spend time moving through the waters of ASEAN member states.

Ultimately, ASEAN must respond cohesively to these developments if it hopes to remain relevant. Former Foreign Minister of Indonesia Marty Natalegawa argues that in losing its centrality to regional diplomacy, ASEAN is paying the price for its inability to respond actively to the security dynamics in the region.

To revitalise its centrality, especially to maintaining peace in the region, it is imperative for ASEAN to bring this issue to the next ASEAN Summit and form a cohesive response for the organisation.

Moreover, given these developments involve non-ASEAN member states, ASEAN must also bring the issue to other multilateral forums where ASEAN takes the lead, such as to the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Forum.

It must focus on bringing regional diplomacy back to operating through these forums if it hopes to have the relevance to proactively play a role in preventing the region from becoming a battleground for major powers.

Building trust and reducing potential miscalculation is utterly central for maintaining regional peace and ASEAN has the potential to do this – but only through its well-established diplomatic and multilateral forums. As such, it must come together in a unified way to protect them.

In the end, even if there is some division on security issues like the formation of AUKUS, it is in the interest of all ASEAN member states to protect the organisation’s centrality to regional diplomacy, and it must act.

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