In September of 2021, a new security partnership called AUKUS was announced by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The primary goal of the partnership is to counter China's aggressive actions in the Indo-Pacific region. One significant aspect of the plan is to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines based on British and American technology and expertise.
Australia's participation in AUKUS is indicative of a strategic divergence from Southeast Asian countries regarding the management of China's rise. Australians have become increasingly wary of China's growing military power, with more than 75 percent of Australians surveyed in a Lowy Institute Poll in 2022 expressing this concern, a significant rise from 41 percent in 2009.
In contrast, Southeast Asian countries tend to view China's rise more positively due to the economic benefits they have received from China's growth. For example, ASEAN's trade in goods with China has increased from around $142 billion in 2012 to over $280 billion in 2021, surpassing ASEAN's trade with the United States.
Australia's decision to seek nuclear submarines from the United States and the United Kingdom through AUKUS, as well as allowing the U.S. to operate their own submarines from a naval base near Perth by 2027, highlights the divergent perceptions of China's threat between Australia and Southeast Asian countries.
Initially, several Southeast Asian states expressed concerns about Australia's military cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom through the AUKUS security partnership, fearing that it could lead to regional instability and an arms race. However, the most recent AUKUS announcement drew a more muted response from Southeast Asian states, indicating a more nuanced acceptance of AUKUS and a desire to benefit from it.
Despite this, there is a general perception that Australia's management of AUKUS could be improved. While the focus has been primarily on acquiring nuclear submarines, AUKUS covers other areas of mutual interest, such as cyberspace, undersea surveillance, electronic warfare, and artificial intelligence.
Some Southeast Asian defense officials believe that Australia should emphasize AUKUS Pillar 2, which could provide an opportunity for closer defense relations with Southeast Asian states through assistance in improving their defense capabilities. While Australia may not be open to sharing the most advanced military technology acquired through AUKUS, there is potential for cooperation in areas such as cybersecurity and undersea capability, which could benefit Southeast Asian states.
However, any Australian efforts to share military technology acquired through AUKUS with Southeast Asian states may face a hurdle in the form of U.S. export control laws. Australia will have to work hard to convince the United States that some capabilities acquired through AUKUS could be used to assist critical Southeast Asian states in improving their defense capabilities.
In summary, if Australia leverages AUKUS Pillar 2 to contribute to Southeast Asia's security, it could deepen defense relations with Southeast Asian states and shape their perceptions that Australia serves to protect, rather than undermine, their security interests.
Recreated from : Alfonso, Andrew. “Australia, AUKUS, and Southeast Asia.” The Diplomat, 3 May 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/05/australia-aukus-and-southeast-asia/.
- Lowy Institute. “China as a Military Threat.” Lowy Institute Poll, 2021, https://poll.lowyinstitute.org/charts/china-as-a-military-threat/.
- Pew Research Center. “When Asked About China, Australians Tend to Think of Its Government, Not Its People.” Pew Research Center, 26 Sept. 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/09/26/when-asked-about-china-australians-tend-to-think-of-its-government-not-its-people/.
- The White House. “Fact Sheet: Trilateral Australia-UK-US Partnership on Nuclear-Powered Submarines.” The White House, 13 Mar. 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/03/13/fact-sheet-trilateral-australia-uk-us-partnership-on-nuclear-powered-submarines/.
- ASEANstats. ASEANstats. “ASEANstats Annual Statistical Yearbook 2022.” ASEANstats, 2022, https://www.aseanstats.org/publication/asyb2022/.