Fear of Irrelevance: Minilaterals and ASEAN’s Inability to Manage Great Power Competition

The newly established trilateral defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known as AUKUS, has added fuel to the rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. The agreement to provide Australia with eight nuclear-powered submarines was taken against the backdrop of China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the South China Sea. Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, immediately denounced the US-UK-Australia clique, stating that AUKUS severely damages “regional peace and stability,” further exhibiting “outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality.”[i] In addition to the debate over AUKUS’s merit to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific’[ii], the concerns from regional countries are largely overlooked.

Located at the center of the Indo-Pacific, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be the immediate recipient of AUKUS’s geopolitical ramifications. Conflict with China will only trap ASEAN in the middle. Due to its members’ long-held stance of neutrality ASEAN members’ responses are unsurprisingly mixed. Indonesia noted deep concern over “the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.”[iii] Similarly, Malaysia fears that AUKUS will “provoke other powers to take more aggressive action.”[iv] While the fear over regional tension seemingly become the only common concern, it’s the feeling of being irrelevant that best captures ASEAN’s grievances. AUKUS and minilaterals alike reveal ASEAN’s increasing inability to manage great power competition in the region. 

Sidelined Regional Institution

Concern over regional arms race only reveals part of ASEAN’s greater anxiety. Behind its call for self-restraint, lies the biggest fear that ASEAN will be sidelined by extra-regional arrangements such as AUKUS. ASEAN has long rested on the notion of “ASEAN centrality,” meaning that the organization serves as the primary driver of regional affairs. However, such hope that ASEAN remains an effective platform has begun to dissipate during the past few years. Many external powers started to see that ASEAN  can no longer mitigate China’s growing dominance in the region. 

The abrupt announcement of AUKUS left the impression that ASEAN only stands as a “spectator,” and is helpless when its so-called strategic partners craft their own diplomatic tools to secure ASEAN’s backyard. The trilateral cooperation unfolded without prior consultation to regional countries, which is ideally expected to take place in ASEAN-led forums such as the East Asia Summit. The fact that AUKUS happened without its knowledge makes ASEAN think whether its partners’ support to ASEAN centrality is merely a “lip-service.”

Some commentators initially blamed Australia. AUKUS, essentially an exclusive ‘Anglosphere’ partnership, has casted doubt over Canberra’, as well as Washington’, commitment to the region, despite their vows to support ASEAN as the center of regional affairs. ASEAN initially had high expectations, especially after State Secretary Lloyd Austin Jr. and VP Kamala Harris conducted diplomatic visits to Southeast Asia in the previous month, conveying Washington’s homage for the region, after years of withdrawal during the late Trump administration.

The US Ambassador to Indonesia has said that AUKUS poses no danger for regional stability and nuclear proliferation to alleviate ASEAN’s concern.[v] While AUKUS countries carry the burden of proof to justify their intention, ASEAN was partly complicit in making such a move able to take place. ASEAN’s inability to address the great power competition results in a strategic environment that allows the creation of AUKUS as a response.

The organization has been criticized for its dithering and inaction to China’s expansionism, notably in the South China Sea. Witnessing ASEAN’s inability to answer security problems, it’s only realistic that external powers begin to pursue their own ways. In contrast to ASEAN’s long decision-making process, a minilateral mechanism like AUKUS offers flexibility in dealing with security concerns in the region. The inception of AUKUS, similar to Quad’s revival in 2017, was inevitable due to the growing threat perception against China. As Rizal Sukma, a senior fellow at Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic of International Studies, noted, “AUKUS is simply a logical consequence of the US-China rivalry.” And further, ASEAN’s inability to bridge that discord.[vi]

Taking ASEAN Centrality for Granted

Being overlooked is the fact that ASEAN’s centrality is a given state. ASEAN, by themselves, can’t hold the position of leadership; its primacy is determined by the commitment of external power in supporting the organization. AUKUS silently carries the frustration from countries that find their strategic interests can’t be secured through ASEAN. Speaking to The Diplomat, Derek Grossman, a senior analyst at RAND Corporation, aptly pointed that “ASEAN’s inability in recent years to adequately address ways to mitigate the negative effects of China’s economic and military rise in the Indo-Pacific have prompted countries external to the region to work together in picking up their slack.”[vii]

ASEAN’s ability to manage conflict is contingent on the unity of its members. However, ASEAN’s divided opinion towards AUKUS only illustrates the internal fracture snowballing within the organization. While Indonesia and Malaysia stand firm with their concern,[viii] Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines voiced their support.[ix]Philippines’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin stated that AUKUS’s ability “should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it.” More moderately articulated, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long said that AUKUS could “contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.” 

AUKUS’s mixed reception was also reflected in ASEAN’s views toward Quad, a minilateral partnership between the US, Australia, Japan, and India that recently held its first in-person summit in Washington on 24 September. Despite initial fear of sidelining ASEAN, the groupings garnered support from some members, namely Vietnam and the Philippines, two countries struggling against China’s excessive claim in their maritime territory. It’s becoming evident that ASEAN is far from unified in responding to great power competition. While it may be central to the region, it is becoming increasingly irrelevant even for some of its members, particularly to address issues concerning China’s expansionism.

A Wake-up Call for New Geopolitical Reality

Minilateral arrangements such as AUKUS should be perceived as a wake-up call for ASEAN. The new geopolitical landscape necessitates regional countries to take different approaches in addressing great power issues. Especially considering that external powers are not viewing ASEAN centrality as “inviolate or sacrosanct.” Forcing ASEAN to find a consensus on AUKUS, as the Malaysian Defense Minister suggested,[x] will only expose further disunity among its members. Instead of whining over those “violations,” ASEAN should begin to embrace the new geopolitical reality it lives in, where “minilateralism runs parallel to multilateral institutions centered on ASEAN,” William Choong and Ian Storey wrote in ISEAS.[xi]

Aside from maritime conflict, managing the crisis in Myanmar will also become the focal point in proving ASEAN’s cohesion. On the verge of being sidelined by external arrangements, Southeast Asian nations can see the next ASEAN chairmanship as the momentum to recalibrate the way it manages great power competition. For the time being, it’s best for regional countries to keep their hands open and co-exist with minilaterals option.  As the Indo-Pacific gains traction as a new geopolitical center of gravity on the international stage, a  more robust, and adaptable ASEAN is more important than ever.  


References:

[i] Phelim Kine, “China howls at perceived threat of new ‘AUKUS’ agreement”, Politico, September 16, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/16/china-howls-at-perceived-threat-of-new-aukus-agreement-512376.

[ii] “Remarks by President Biden, Prime Minister Morrison of Australia, and Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom Announcing the Creation of AUKUS”, The White House, September 15, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/09/15/remarks-by-president-biden-prime-minister-morrison-of-australia-and-prime-minister-johnson-of-the-united-kingdom-announcing-the-creation-of-aukus/.

[iii] “​Statement on Australia’s Nuclear-powered Submarines Program”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, September 17, 2021, https://kemlu.go.id/portal/en/read/2937/siaran_pers/statement-on-australias-nuclear-powered-submarines-program.

[iv] Sebastian Strangio, “Malaysian Defense Minister Hoping for ASEAN Consensus on AUKUS”, The Diplomat, October 13, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/10/malaysian-defense-minister-hoping-for-asean-consensus-on-aukus/.

[v] Stanley Widianto, “AUKUS pact no threat to Indo-Pacific stability, U.S. envoy says”, Reuters, September 29, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/aukus-no-proliferation-threat-respects-asean-centrality-us-envoy-2021-09-29/

[vi] Rizal Sukma, “Is AUKUS a problem or blessing for ASEAN?”, The Jakarta Post, September 30, 2021, https://www.thejakartapost.com/academia/2021/09/30/is-aukus-a-problem-or-blessing-for-asean.html.

[vii] David Hutt, “Is ASEAN at Fault for Rising Indo-Pacific Tensions?”, The Diplomat, October 7, https://thediplomat.com/2021/10/is-asean-at-fault-for-rising-indo-pacific-tensions/.

[viii] Sebastian Strangio, “Indonesia and Malaysia Reiterate Concerns About AUKUS Pact”, The Diplomat, October 19, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/10/indonesia-and-malaysia-reiterate-concerns-about-aukus-pact/.

[ix] William Choong and Ian Storey, “Southeast Asian Responses to AUKUS: Arms Racing, Non-Proliferation and Regional Stability”, ISEAS Perspective, October, 2021. https://www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2021-134-southeast-asian-responses-to-aukus-arms-racing-non-proliferation-and-regional-stability-by-william-choong-and-ian-storey/.

[x] Strangio, “Malaysian Defense Minister Hoping”.

[xi] Choong and Storey, “Southeast Asian Responses to AUKUS”.

Arrizal Jaknanihan