Aukus reveals much about how the West really sees Southeast Asia
- For the US, the pact revitalises its ‘pivot to Asia’, for the UK it projects a ‘global Britain’, and for Australia, it poses more questions than answers, including about nuclear proliferation
- It also betrays unfortunate assumptions about the region’s ability to maintain its own security and highlights America’s one-dimensional focus in competing with China
But Aukus has cast an unwelcome shadow on the region for several reasons.
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To expedite the building of the submarines, Australia is expected to base the boats on an existing design. Will it choose from the American Virginia-class submarines or Britain’s Astute-class boat? But as Australia does not have a commercial nuclear power programme, how will it maintain a nuclear-powered navy without the high- or low-enriched uranium for the submarines?
There is also the worry that nuclear-powered submarines will be the start of a path towards nuclear weapons proliferation. And if the US and Britain go further to get Australia to host military hardware with nuclear capabilities, it will undermine existing treaties including Asean’s TAC (Treaty of Amity and Cooperation), Zopfan (Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality) and SEANWFZ (Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone) that Australia is bound by.
The Aukus pact also reflects the unfortunate assumptions that Western allies continue to have about the region. One is that there is a general underestimation of the capacity of Asean countries to maintain their own security, not solely through military infrastructure and capabilities, but through diplomacy and governance. Ensuring stable political, economic and social conditions is one of the best ways to prevent external intervention and even intraregional tensions.
Second, it once again emphasises Washington’s one-dimensional focus on security priorities in the Asia-Pacific, and third, its prioritisation of military preparedness in facing up to strategic competition with China.
The Aukus pact comes at a time when maritime issues are increasingly featuring as national interest priorities. Gunboat diplomacy – such as the limited projection of naval prowess to attain foreign policy objectives – will increasingly play a bigger role as an instrument of foreign policy.
It would be a mistake for countries to allow this to threaten peace and stability.
After all, the unique nature of the Asian region is such that countries’ national interests in trade and economic cooperation have long intersected despite differences over national sovereignty and jurisdictional disputes.
So even as the focus of maritime diplomacy is on reshaping the security architecture in Asia-Pacific, we should not overlook the need for it to also encompass confidence-building measures.
René L Pattiradjawane is a retired journalist who spent 32 years with Kompas, Indonesia’s largest newspaper