How Aukus’ failure to consult Asia dooms it to disappointment
- The Western allies’ agreement will struggle to get regional buy-in and ultimately underdeliver
- Failing to consult countries in the region was an initial liability, but refusing to consider their concerns afterwards has secured the pact’s fallibility
US exceptionalism desensitises Aukus to regional reservations and places it above multilateral restraint and external oversight. As a dedicated military alliance, it has focus and clarity of purpose while avoiding ambiguity for a stronger deterrence capacity.
With all members from outside Asia, Aukus also operates free from regional inhibitions and any obligation to seek regional approval. But to see these as net gains with no downsides would be a mistake. What gives Aukus its freedom also spells its limits and liabilities.
Aukus and its submarines are unlikely to dent China’s posture. For the region, it could escalate US-China tensions and provoke a tougher Chinese response.
By late September, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shared Indonesian and Malaysian concerns that Aukus would spur a regional arms race. Weeks later, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen advised the US to “stay very far away” from physically confronting China.
Aukus has clear deterrence “sticks” but no diplomatic “carrots”. Its provocative nature could diminish diplomatic efforts elsewhere.
Simply adding alliances might not produce a stronger coalition if partner concerns are not addressed. For example, inviting France into Aukus now would not heal the rifts already created.
Aukus has stumbled into controversy in a region bristling with sensitivities. Its US imprimatur does not encourage Europe or Asia, whether with Trump-like unpredictability or Biden-esque chaos.
Washington might not care to recall its own nightmares in Vietnam or elsewhere. But Europeans and Asians who are more mindful of history might be wary of how US forces tend to treat local allies when quitting a conflict zone.
That all Aukus countries are from outside the region may be more troubling. Without belonging to the region, they have no permanent stake or concern for its future. If the Aukus alliance damages relations with China, distance will help cushion the impact.
Aukus doesn’t have to crimp non-military options to cause anxiety. Raising militarist prospects strains the interests of the smaller, less-developed nations that typify the region, where the status quo is founded on settling disputes amicably and rejecting the use or threat of force.
New Zealand’s potential entry implies more tension. Other anti-China measures can be expected, posing greater challenges to security protocols.
No military pact can address the comprehensive challenges in US-China competition. Economic, technological and other rivalries will not be resolved by raising the military stakes. Aukus’ advertised prospects have placed it beyond its realisable potential.
Advocates and detractors could find that it delivers less than promised because it was never fit for purpose. That members of the alliance failed to consult countries in the region was an early liability.
Refusing to consider their concerns after the alliance has been agreed only confirms its fallibility. What Aukus can do that other alliances cannot is another subject for debate, insofar as it is worth debating.
Bunn Nagara is an independent political analyst and honorary research fellow of the Perak Academy, Malaysia