China’s expansionism is unlikely to go unchecked
In less than a month, the trilateral security partnership among Australia, the US, and the UK (Aukus) has stolen the thunder from other geo-strategic schemes that have been around for over a decade.
Aukus now overshadows the “Quad” grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US, and outshines earlier geo-strategic projections, such as the US’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). That the Anglo-American-Australian alliance -- which might be dubbed “Triple A” -- has become the main bulwark against China’s expansionist aims will likely raise regional tensions to the detriment of Asean centrality and Southeast Asia’s peace and stability.
While media attention has been focused on Aukus’s stated intention to support Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, the trilateral partnership is broader. It intends to share information and technology and integrate security and defense capabilities in the promotion of the existing “international rules-based order,” which was instrumentally constructed by the Anglo-American alliance after World War II to the benefit of countries like Australia. Aukus also sets out to “protect … shared values and promote security and prosperity” in the prevailing international system. This is a potent and patently status quo agreement in view of China’s role and status as “revisionist” power.
While the Indo-Pacific remains the main arena of contention and contest, Aukus is more than a two-ocean response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and expansionism in the South China Sea and elsewhere. The post-Brexit UK’s central role in Aukus adds the Atlantic Ocean into the Indo-Pacific mix, entailing a re-conceptualization of the contours and dynamics of global politics. This three-ocean projection will further make Beijing feel more encircled and agitated. As a result, the near-term ramifications are not hard to figure out.
First, Aukus outflanks the Quad and its FOIP basis because India and Japan’s combined heft has been insufficient to take China to task. Despite its contentious issues and tensions with China, India’s congenital autonomy precludes being roped into the Australia-America axis against Beijing. Similarly, Japan sees China as a geo-political rival and security threat but needs to chart its own path in dealing with Beijing.
No country with a direct land or maritime border with China is willing to openly risk the ire of Beijing. This is why the Quad can only go so far. A more concrete agreement in view of the sharing of nuclear technology and defense interoperability, Aukus goes further partly because it comprises countries from farther away with tensions and issues vis-à-vis China but no direct borders.
Second, for the UK, Aukus is deeply consequential. Being out of the EU means having to carve out its own niches and means of power. The issue now is what kind of great power the UK wants to be.
Its decision to join Aukus may have cast its geo-strategic die, throwing its lot in with the US and reviving the old and trusted “special relationship” and bilateral Atlantic alliance short of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato). The UK’s alternative would have been to strike a moving balance between the US and the EU.
Aukus is now likely to further alienate the UK from the EU, which has its own and more autonomous Indo-Pacific strategy. Yet the UK’s connection with Australia through Aukus is unlikely to revive old British imperial relations or boost Commonwealth bonds. Australia sees the UK more as partner and peer rather than a former colonial periphery to its imperial core.
While Australia stands to benefit the most from Aukus because Canberra knows what kind of a middle power it wants to be, the UK’s great-power status is unclear.
Does the UK want to play second fiddle to the Americans and stay further away from the EU’s orbit? To what extent is the UK geo-strategically autonomous and independent? The answers to these questions are consequential and crucial to the UK’s plans and conduct in its new international life.
The third ramification is all about China. Aukus will be seen in Beijing as an act of symbolic aggression by the Western powers. Chinese strategic planners will likely blame the Australians, first for picking a fight by accusing China of starting the coronavirus pandemic and then, after China pushed back with a trade and tariff war, getting its bigger friend and cousin to gang up on Beijing.
Surely, Aukus will elicit a clear and muscular response in no uncertain terms. Already Chinese warplanes have hovered over Taiwanese skies. China’s South China Sea manoeuvres may be stepped up, and its “wolf warrior” diplomacy will probably become more active. China will likely see itself as a victim rather than the aggressor.
Fourth, these tensions will simmer and manifest in the Asean domain. While China has divided Asean on South China Sea issues and attracted Cambodia and Laos to its fold, Aukus will further polarize the 10-member grouping, which already has been hobbled by Myanmar’s post-coup crisis.
Malaysia and Indonesia, as opposed to Singapore and Vietnam, are not in favour of Aukus, while the trilateral deal may complicate related cooperative vehicles, such as the Five Powers Defense Arrangement among Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the UK.
Asean centrality will thus face a further test under Aukus, as Australia pushes back against China in Southeast Asia’s neighbourhood. A more unified and uniformed Asean is needed to maintain a central role in regional cooperation for peace and security. But Asean has suffered more and more from disunity and discord.
In fact, the Quad’s recent movements and now Aukus are by-products of Asean’s inertia and inability to provide organization and direction in its own neighbourhood in view of China’s belligerence. It does not mean Asean will crumble or disappear, but its relevance and central role will further diminish.
Finally, there are related consequences from Aukus. Asean and New Zealand are intent on maintaining a nuclear-free environment, which is now made more difficult. The Asia-Pacific geo-strategic frame is now more marginalized and eclipsed by the Indo-Pacific, shifting the focus from prosperity to security.
Yet something like Aukus was bound to emerge. China’s expansionism is unlikely to go unchecked while the old alliances of the West remain deeply rooted.
As these signs bode ill for Southeast Asia’s hitherto peaceful neighbourhood, it behoves Asean leaders to close ranks and realize that being together is geo-strategically more beneficial than being divided by outside powers.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor at Chulalongkorn University. This article previously appeared on The Bangkok Post and has been reprinted by special arrangement.