Responses to the new AUKUS agreement differ across the region, from outright support through to worry about the increased militarisation of the Indo-Pacific. Australia must continue to prosecute the benefits of the announcement to the region.
Responses from Australia’s Indo-Pacific neighbours to the new AUKUS alliance were far from uniform, ranging from outright support from governments through to concern that the new agreement would lead to a new military arms race in the region. However, Australia’s forward planning as set out in the Strategic Update has set the country on course to be an ambitious military player in the region, contingent on the goodwill and support of regional neighbours to preserve ongoing stability in the Indo-Pacific.
This is the view of Susannah Patton, research fellow in foreign policy at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, writing in ASPI’s The Strategist this week. Patton argues that Australia cannot set aside concerns held by the country’s regional neighbours, whose traditional perception of the US typically diverges from Australia’s.
“While some countries, notably the Philippines and Singapore, were positive about the AUKUS announcement, statements from Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur reflected concerns that the AUKUS arrangement would contribute to a regional military build-up, raising tensions and making conflict more likely,” Patton argues.
"And a move like AUKUS that signals a strong US commitment to the region should help prevent China from dominating it, something every country is worried about. They’ll take comfort from the fact that the Philippines, one of the key claimant states in the South China Sea, is much more supportive, and that Vietnam is likely to be, too."
Patton, however, suggests than many in Australia’s foreign affairs and defence apparatus may overlook these views of our Indo-Pacific neighbours due to strategic naivete, or sideline them by prioritising the opinion of India and Japan – being more strategically influential.
Indeed, she continues that some may even downplay fears of regional pessimism towards the announcement. Patton notes that analysts are likely to suggest that behind the scenes, many of our neighbours may support the action while appearing to be less supportive in public.
This doesn’t mean that Australia can dismiss the feedback.
“Canberra must resist the solace of these approaches and take regional reactions to AUKUS seriously,” Patton continues.
“Regional views matter, because Canberra’s own defence strategic planning describes Australia’s co-operative defence activities with regional countries as ‘fundamental to our ability to shape our strategic environment’. It notes the importance of our defence forces maintaining operational access in the region, and of our being able to lead coalition operations when it is in the interests of the region that we do so.”
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As such, Patton outlines that Australia must reassure our neighbours that our goals remain in tandem with their desire for regional stability.
“At the heart of these differing perceptions is this: Australians by and large see the US as a benign and moral actor, upholding the regional security order,” she says.
“By definition, its actions don’t destabilise the region. Some of our neighbours are more ambivalent, seeing both the US and China as contributing to a more tense and unstable region.”
As such, the burden is on Australia to show the positive impacts that the new AUKUS alliance will have on the region, Patton outlines.
“Australia should not resile from AUKUS or the idea that the full range of our security co-operation with the US is beneficial for the region. But because not all countries automatically agree, these benefits must be demonstrated, not merely asserted,” she says.
Beyond the Indo-Pacific, the European Union had publicly unveiled its EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific on the same day, writes Ian Hill in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter.
“Also caught unawares was the European Union, which released its own Indo-Pacific strategy the same day as the AUKUS announcement,” Hill argued.
“Having been blindsided by the US’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and earlier by the US volte-face on the Nord Stream 2 project to bring Arctic Russian gas to Germany, AUKUS raised eyebrows among US European allies, and inevitably fuelled calls for greater strategic autonomy.”
Meanwhile, Hill further explains that China applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership on the same day.
Such is the competition for the Indo-Pacific.
While providing huge military capability benefits to Australia, the new AUKUS partners must assuage the concerns held by those in the region – even if they are privately supporting the new partnership. The alliance will come under criticism and scrutiny from China and the European Union, thus Australia must proactively and consistently demonstrate the benefit of the alliance to ongoing order in the Indo-Pacific.
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected], [email protected], or at [email protected]