Two Australian Collins class submarines are docked at HMAS Stirling Royal Australian Navy base in Perth, Western Australia, on October 29. Australia is committed to getting its first nuclear-powered submarines built and operating as quickly as possible, Defence Minister Peter Dutton has said. Photo: EPA-EFE
Bunn Nagara
Bunn Nagara

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
The case for the Aukus alliance is self-explanatory to those who are part of the pact, particularly if countries in Southeast Asia do not matter to them.
Advocates see the grouping of Australia, the UK and the US – with New Zealand also considering cooperating in areas other than nuclear submarine development – as an overdue deterrent against China’s maritime assertiveness. It extends other anglophone alliances that have US primacy as a common priority.

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.

US militarist postures in contested spaces are not new. Freedom of navigation operations since 2015 to curtail Chinese adventurism have resulted only in its escalation. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation withered away because of a lack of regional interest, indicating that even co-opting US allies in Southeast Asia won’t work without region-wide endorsement.


US, UK, Australia announce ‘historic’ military partnership in Pacific

US, UK, Australia announce ‘historic’ military partnership in Pacific

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.

The game-changer is an unprecedented nuclear-powered navy for non-nuclear-armed Australia. Some in Southeast Asia see this as risking nuclear proliferation and nudging China into a deepening arms race.
This region can wear down alliances it is unimpressed with through sustained indifference. Early euphoria over endorsement from the Philippines and Singapore soon faded.

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.

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Aukus has clear deterrence “sticks” but no diplomatic “carrots”. Its provocative nature could diminish diplomatic efforts elsewhere.

Its nuclear submarines target the PLA Navy’s subsurface weakness, prodding China to redouble its capacity in assets from undersea drones to fixed-wing aircraft for anti-submarine warfare.
Meanwhile, partners in parallel alliances tend to be irked with disconnections between them. With Aukus members also in the Five-Power Defence Arrangements, Singapore and Malaysia might now be more circumspect about the grouping’s implications.

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.

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes US Vice-President Kamala Harris for the International Conference for Libya, at the Maison de la Chimie in Paris, on November 12. Photo: TNS

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.

Following the messy withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan, Aukus arrives in a region where people still remember a shambolic US departure from Saigon. Even as Australian diplomats try selling Aukus abroad, former prime ministers have criticised it for undermining vital interests.

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.

Under the Aukus agreement, only nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed, submarines will be provided. While that will reassure China, it could also cause more controversy and rejection.

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.

One concern is that Aukus nations are not subject to regional influence, conventions or mechanisms. They can commit or withdraw as they alone see fit, answerable to no authority. The alliance’s job description is unilaterally defined, with little regard for regional interests or norms.

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.

US-China competition has spanned hypersonic missiles, carrier-based strike aircraft and aircraft carrier design. Aukus now adds submarine assets to the rival inventories.

New Zealand’s potential entry implies more tension. Other anti-China measures can be expected, posing greater challenges to security protocols.

Aukus requires far more political endorsement in a region where no member has a military base. Deals like nuclear propulsion for some submarines cannot compensate for the lack of assured logistical support sourced locally. But the region rejects great power conflict where it has to pick up the pieces, including its own.

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