How South-­East Asia views AUKUS

How South-­East Asia views AUKUS

Originally published in Australian Foreign Affairs

In her first speech to a South-­East Asian audience as foreign minister, Penny Wong reiterated Paul Keating’s famous line: “Australia must find its security in Asia, not from Asia.” Restating this phrase early in her new role was a signal that although the Albanese government remained committed to AUKUS and deeper ties with the United States, it would seek engagement with South-­East Asia in line with a Labor tradition traceable to the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments. In so doing, it would tread a different path from the Morrison government, which never really sustained a high-­level focus on this region.

To reconcile Australia’s alliance relations with regional engagement, Wong has articulated a concept of “strategic equilibrium”. Wong has proposed that a balance of power, with no single country dominating, will provide an environment in which South-­East Asian countries can “make their own sovereign choices, including about their alignments and partnerships”. This concept is a neat way of framing Australia’s investment in AUKUS and other defence acquisitions as contributions to supporting regional countries’ goal of flexible non-­alignment.

Yet threading the needle between a deeper alliance with the United States and closer strategic relations with South-­East Asia is tricky, even for Wong, whose diplomacy with the region has been deft and vigorous. This challenge is typified by regional doubts about the AUKUS arrangement. The persistence of these concerns, more than two years after the September 2021 announcement, suggests a genuine disagreement between Australia and South-­East Asia about how best to preserve regional security.

The region’s reactions to AUKUS

South-­East Asia’s diversity precludes a single “South-­East Asian” perspective on an issue as divisive as AUKUS. The ten countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) encompass huge contrasts in political systems (from boisterous democracies like the Philippines to autocracies such as Vietnam), levels of economic development (from wealthy Singapore to conflict-­torn Myanmar) and geographic proximity to China (from confident, distant Indonesia to small, weak Laos). Within each country, too, there exists diverging strands of opinion, between publics and elites, and between foreign affairs and defence bureaucracies.

Despite this diversity, it’s possible to sketch out a prevailing South-­East Asian perspective on US–China competition, which explains the region’s responses to AUKUS. While Canberra has seen Beijing’s growing power and assertive behaviour as an urgent challenge, South-­East Asian capitals are likewise anxious but do not necessarily consider China the primary cause for concern. Rather, they often see the United States and China as morally equivalent superpowers. In this worldview, the United States, as much as China, is perceived as instigating tensions or raising the risk of conflict. China is not necessarily liked – public opinion surveys bear this out – but it is seen as a fact of life to be accepted, rather than pushed back against or changed. As Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong put it memorably to Scott Morrison in 2021: “You need to work with [China]. It is going to be there, it is going to be a substantial presence.” In economic terms, China is regarded as the most valuable external partner, increasingly in terms of investment as well as trade. By contrast, the United States under both the Trump and Biden administrations has retrenched from economic engagement with Asia, withdrawing from the Trans-­Pacific Partnership Agreement and offering only the weak Indo-­Pacific Economic Framework as compensation. The “ASEAN way” – consensus, non-­interference and incremental multilateral cooperation – remains the sine qua non of regional diplomacy. Surprises and “minilat­eralism” – doing things in smaller groups of like-­minded countries – are frowned on. 

Both South-East Asia and Australia worry that the post–Cold War order is being eroded

In different ways, both South-­East Asia and Australia worry that the post–Cold War order that has served the region’s growth and development so well is being eroded. Canberra would assess that the regional status quo has already changed for the worse, since at least 2012, as Beijing’s behaviour has become more assertive and its military has rapidly modernised. In other words, balance has already been lost, and needs to be restored through investments such as AUKUS. By contrast, South-­East Asian officials often present the regional status quo as favourable but facing growing headwinds from tensions between great powers. This disagreement – between those who seek to maintain the status quo and those who see it as in need of restoration – lies in the background of debates about AUKUS.

There are exceptions to this broad-­brush picture. Vietnam and the Philippines, which face a direct threat from China in the South China Sea, accept the need for a US presence, possibly even an increased one, to maintain a military balance of power. In 2023, both took major steps to boost their relationships with the United States. Manila allowed Washington to access four new military sites in the country, and Hanoi upgraded its ties with Washington to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”. Singapore, too, has at times been more willing to overtly recognise the value of the US presence in the region. The perspectives of these countries are important, but they are in a minority within South-­East Asia. Elsewhere, and above all in Indonesia – the region’s largest and most important power – a more ambivalent attitude prevails.

Given South-­East Asia’s reluctance to overtly take sides in regional rivalries, negativity in the region about AUKUS was not surprising. At the most basic level, a splashy announcement that Australia would be supported by the United States and the United Kingdom to acquire – in the words of Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, head of Australia’s nuclear-­submarine taskforce – “the most formidable defence capability one can procure” cut against the region’s ingrained preferences for predictability, consultation and preservation of the status quo. That the three countries were all anglophone and members of the Five Eyes intelligence-­sharing arrangement made it more concerning to the region than the Quad, which has evolved slowly and includes Japan and India, making it a more diverse group. Concerns about the possibility of a non-­nuclear power acquiring nuclear technology for military use also played a role, although Wong’s response to this was compelling: Aus­tralia has a good track record in this area and has committed to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure adherence to its non-­proliferation commitments.

Indonesia’s foreign ministry said it was “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region” and called on Australia to “maintain its commitment towards regional peace, stability and security” – implying that AUKUS called this into question. According to the ABC, President Widodo “repeatedly and forcefully” objected to AUKUS during an ASEAN meeting in late 2021. Malaysia’s prime minister and its foreign and defence ministers all voiced unease that AUKUS could precipitate a regional arms race and raise the risk of conflict. Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s foreign ministers even met and together expressed their concerns about arms-­racing and power projection.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong issued a statement noting that Singapore “hoped that AUKUS would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region”. Many commentators have taken this as an endorsement, but a close reading of Lee’s careful words suggests that while Singapore is not necessarily anxious about AUKUS, it is reserving judgement on whether the partnership will be a net benefit to the region. The Philippines was the only country to make a genuinely positive statement, although Vietnam is often assumed to be supportive given its interest in checking China’s naval power in the South China Sea. No other country made a public statement, but countries in mainland South-­East Asia – such as Thailand and Cambodia – would almost certainly share the concerns expressed by Indonesia and Malaysia. In short, despite some exceptions, AUKUS was largely met with wariness or opposition in South-­East Asia.

Reservations about AUKUS

Despite the relative clarity of this response, Australia’s understanding of regional perspectives on AUKUS has often been muddled. The first common misunderstanding is that South-­East Asian countries are mere mouthpieces for Beijing. Certainly, China has portrayed AUKUS as undermining nuclear non-­proliferation standards, in what the US State Department has said amounts to a disinformation campaign. China has also played on regional concerns about minilateralism by conflating AUKUS with the Quad and decrying both as examples of “bloc politics” that heighten polarisation in the region. Confusingly, Malaysia’s former defence minister declared his intention to travel to Beijing for consultations with China on the AUKUS arrangement. But to assume that PRC disinformation is the source of the region’s concerns about AUKUS wishes away the genuinely different strategic outlook of South-­East Asian countries that underpins their responses.

A second misconception dismisses the region’s publicly stated concerns about AUKUS because privately expressed views, especially among defence officials and personnel, have been more positive. It’s true that the United States remains the region’s most important defence partner, as a source of both kit and expertise. South-­East Asian defence officials are thus more favourably disposed to Washington than their foreign ministry counterparts, who tend to be more receptive to China’s economic influence. As Indonesian analyst Evan Laksmana has noted, publicly expressed concerns could in fact be more truthful, given that defence officials might provide assurances behind closed doors of their support for US strategic goals, in the hope of obtaining military sales and expertise from Washington and its allies. Perhaps to this end, Indonesia’s defence minister at the time of the AUKUS announcement, Prabowo Subianto, was much more positive about AUKUS than its foreign minister, Retno Marsudi. Prabowo noted in a public forum in 2021 that he understood and respected the intentions behind AUKUS. Likewise, in 2023 President Widodo said that the Quad and AUKUS should be seen as “partners, not competitors” – a comment cited by Albanese in his Shangri-­La Dialogue address. However, while positive for Australia, Widodo’s riffing to reporters should not be interpreted as authoritative declaratory policy; in 2018, in an equally polite and baffling moment, he told an Australian newspaper that he hoped Australia would join ASEAN, even though in reality Indonesia would never support this.

Australia’s overriding preoccupation with the threat posed by China has not been lost on Jakarta

A third misconception is that South-­East Asia objected to AUKUS merely because it was not consulted or forewarned of the announcement. Indonesia did feel particularly aggrieved by this as the regular “two plus two” meeting of its defence and foreign ministers with their Australian counterparts was held just the week beforehand. Australia kept quiet despite the 2006 Lombok Treaty, signed by the two countries with the explicit purpose of establishing deeper consultation on security issues. This secrecy also occurred despite efforts by both sides to establish a culture of consultation and overcome a challenging history of mistrust and suspicion, particularly following Australia’s role in supporting independence for East Timor. Forewarning would have helped, but it is unlikely it would have prevented objections entirely.

It’s important to note, though, that while Jakarta is wary that AUKUS (and other Australian policy decisions) makes it more likely that Indonesia will be physically and politically caught in the middle of a regional conflict, it mostly does not regard itself as a target of AUKUS. Paranoid thinking about Australian intentions in Papua still exists in some pockets and online. Yet Australia’s overriding preoccupation with the threat posed by China has not been lost on Jakarta. The concern in Indonesia is not so much that nuclear-­powered submarines would be used against it, but that it may be drawn into a conflict by virtue of its archipelagic geography – the hinge between the Indian and Pacific oceans and between Australia and the world.

Interpretations that downplay the extent of disagreement between Australia and South-­East Asia about AUKUS have found fertile ground in Australia, because many of us would rather not accept the uncomfortable truth that we simply do not see the world the same way as our neighbours.

Australia’s AUKUS diplomacy

South-­East Asian views – no matter how deeply held – will not deter Canberra from pursuing AUKUS. For many defence officials and analysts, Indonesia’s approval would be nice to have, but Canberra should not be prevented from doing what it must to safeguard the country’s security. Why, they ask, should squeamish South-­East Asian countries have a veto on the actions of those, like Aus­tralia, who are prepared to invest in maintaining a regional balance of power? 

Even so, the Albanese government clearly still cares about how South-­East Asia sees Australian strategic policy, including AUKUS. (The extent to which the Morrison government, which was more exclusively preoccupied with the Pacific, cared is less clear.) Led by Wong, Australia has ramped up a determined campaign of regional reassurance. In the wake of AUKUS, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade established new diplomatic positions overseas in important missions, such as those in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, to represent Australian strategic policy and report reactions, a costly exercise. The department’s AUKUS arm is now called the AUKUS Defence Capability and Regional Engagement Branch, signalling this desire to engage with Australia’s neighbours as part of its AUKUS diplomacy. 

The government has increased its “pre-­briefing” of South-­East Asian countries ahead of defence announcements – so much so that regional officials are occasionally complaining that the briefings are excessive and becoming a nuisance. Ahead of the March 2023 announcement about the agreed “optimal pathway” for AUKUS, which included the decision to host a rotational presence of UK and US nuclear-­powered submarines, the Albanese government said it made more than sixty phone calls to leaders, defence ministers and foreign ministers, in addition to a visit by Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell to key regional countries.

Officials are not unduly optimistic about the outcome of this diplomacy: they do not expect to convert Indonesia or Malaysia into a pro-­AUKUS camp. Yet they hope that by communicating clearly and consistently, they may at least mitigate some of the region’s sharpest concerns. Measured against these modest goals, Australian diplomacy post-­AUKUS has been highly effective. Regional expressions of concern about AUKUS have not escalated, and AUKUS has not been criticised by ASEAN as a group: a statement issued by Brunei following an ASEAN meeting with Australia in October 2021 noted dully that during the meeting “views were expressed” about the implications of AUKUS for the region.

At the same time, the Albanese government has continued the efforts of previous Australian governments to establish deeper and more ongoing dialogue with regional countries; for example, pursuing a new agreement on defence cooperation and additional dialogues with defence and foreign ministry officials. Albanese was upbeat about this work in his 2023 Lowy Lecture, spruiking progress on a new defence cooperation agreement with Indonesia as “remarkable”. These forums, although not explicitly about AUKUS, could enable a more mature conversation with the region that goes beyond a battery of pre-­briefings. Though regional officials presumably prefer consultation to surprises, ad hoc pre-­briefings by diplomats who are not subject-­matter experts on defence policy risk delivering talking points that are repetitive, form­ulaic and poorly targeted.  

What has been missing is a clear explanation from the Albanese government of why it seeks to acquire nuclear-­powered submarines. Just as it has declined to elaborate on the practical purpose of AUKUS to its domestic audience, the government has also been circumspect to the region. In his Shangri-­La Dialogue address – a major opportunity to set out Australian strategic policy – Albanese described nuclear-­powered submarines as reflecting Australia’s determination to “be a stronger partner and a more effective contributor to stability in our region”. While there are legitimate reasons for circumspection, this kind of banal non-­statement reassures no one.

Instead of seeking to reassure the region about the purpose of the nuclear-­powered submarines, Australia has tended to focus more on the model way it is pursuing this technology. One word has resurfaced time and time again in this narrative: transparency. The March 2023 “optimal pathway” announcement noted the AUKUS countries were committed to “open and transparent engagement with partners within and beyond the region”. Australian officials frequently highlight the contrast between AUKUS and China’s military modernisation, which lacks transparency. Yet it’s unclear if transparency alone is a winning message in South-­East Asia.

A second plank of Australian defence officials’ narrative is that AUKUS is not a “normative” arrangement which seeks to shape the region, but a simple technology-­sharing partnership and a natural extension of the close relationships that have long existed between the three member countries. This is in contrast, for example, to the Quad, whose members have explicitly said they are setting out a vision for the Indo-­Pacific region. While the Quad puts out statements on preferred approaches to issues such as technology governance, AUKUS does not. As a result, the reasoning goes, South-­East Asian countries have no need to fear that AUKUS is eroding the central position of ASEAN in the region’s multilateral architecture. Although this is true, all three AUKUS partners have at times undermined this claim with ambitious references to shared values and maintaining a free and open Indo-­Pacific. If AUKUS has such lofty aims, then the region is less likely to see it as a simple technology-­sharing agreement.

What has been missing is a clear explanation from the Albanese government of why it seeks to acquire nuclear-powered submarines

A third plank in Australia’s defence of AUKUS relates to the unique advantages of nuclear-­powered submarines in protecting Australia’s vast coastline. Yet Australia has also given mixed signals about the purpose of the submarines, with some officials and analysts referring to the need for Australia to project power further north. Other defence officials have argued that changes in military technology mean that a hard distinction between defending Australia and projecting power further afield is no longer valid – nuclear-­powered submarines can be deployed to advantage in both theatres. Official Australian defence planning documents argue that Australia’s security and that of our region are inextricably linked – in other words, Aus­tralia’s focus is not solely on defending its own territory, but on playing a more ambitious role in the region. Neither the Morrison nor Albanese governments have been willing to elaborate on the purpose to which nuclear-­powered sub­marines will be put. This is a challenge for Australia’s narrative in the region as much as it is domestically. 

While Australian diplomacy has been vigorous in private, Foreign Minister Wong has said little publicly about AUKUS during her extensive travel in the region. When she has spoken, Wong has tended to downplay the significance of AUKUS; for example, describing nuclear-­powered submarines as “not a new capability for the region”, and the arrangement as “an evolution of our relationships with the US and the UK”. The lack of elaboration is deliberate, based on the calculation that public advocacy could precipitate further negative commentary from regional governments. This is a valid concern: when Wong made her first official visit to Malaysia, the then Malaysian foreign minister did not raise AUKUS but was effectively forced to restate Malaysia’s position when prompted by a question from a reporter.

Opting for quiet, behind-­the-­scenes diplomacy is also logical given that AUKUS is largely an elite preoccupation. Opinion polling in the region suggests that few people are aware of AUKUS: a survey conducted by the Lowy Institute in Indonesia in 2021 found that just 11 per cent of Indonesians had heard of AUKUS.

That AUKUS has little public resonance in South-­East Asia has helped to insulate Australia’s bilateral relationships from any adverse impact. Wong’s diplomacy has changed the tone of Australia’s engagement, focusing on support for the region’s priorities, especially in terms of economics, rather than counterproductive messaging on the threat posed by China. The Albanese government’s South-­East Asia economic strategy, launched in September 2023, is well targeted, if lacking in concrete action. With the exception of conflict-­torn Myanmar, Australia has no disputes of note with the region and is at the forefront of the current frenzy to rebadge and upgrade relationships as “comprehensive”, “strategic” or “comprehensive strategic”. In fact, Australia’s relationships with ASEAN and its members are arguably better than they’ve ever been.

The widening gap between Australia and the region

Australia, then, should take South-­East Asian perspectives on AUKUS not as a hot button issue to be managed or minimised, but as a signal of genuine disagreement about the right way to mitigate the risk of conflict between the United States and China in the decades ahead. In the Pacific, while views of AUKUS are similarly ambivalent, Aus­tralia’s direct influence and role as the region’s most important partner mean that attitudes to Australia are shaped by more diffuse factors, especially positions and action on climate change. But in South-­East Asia, where we are just one of many external partners, our approach to regional security issues such as AUKUS forms an important part of how we are seen.

Viewed in this context, the responses to AUKUS imply that genuine strategic alignment with most of the region is becoming more difficult for Australia and the United States. The majority of South-­East Asia remains wary about policies that seek to constrain China or reassert US influence in the region. In many ways, this makes the concept of “security in Asia” a dead letter. Anyone who hopes that Jakarta’s regional vision will align with Canberra’s on anything more than the lowest common denominator – a peaceful and prosperous region governed by rules – will be waiting for a long time. South-­East Asia – apart from the Philippines – will largely hold back from joining the rapidly growing web of security cooperation among the United States and its allies, especially Australia and Japan.

The consequences for Australia’s foreign and strategic policy are far-­reaching. In the event of a conflict over Taiwan – the region’s most dangerous flashpoint – the best that Australia could hope for would be South-­East Asia remaining neutral. AUKUS has revived a longstanding debate in Indonesia about the use of its archipelagic sea lanes in a time of war, with some voices calling for Jakarta to refuse transit to Aus­tralian nuclear-­powered submarines. This would be deeply concerning to Australia, given its enduring interest in freedom of movement for both military and commercial vessels through the archipelago. International lawyers argue such a move would not be valid under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, and experts doubt that the Indonesian navy has the practical capacity to enforce this. But it is telling that this idea appeals to those in Indonesia who worry about being drawn into a conflict among major powers.

In less drastic scenarios too, Canberra needs to be wary about the consequences of a South-­East Asia that is essentially unsympathetic to its strategic worldview. Together with the islands of Melanesia, maritime South-­East Asia encompasses our northern approaches, leading to the often-­recited cliché that security threats to Australia, whether traditional or non-­traditional, pass through South-­East Asia. We cannot predict with confidence what will transpire in our region in the coming decades. Yet in any plausible scenario that we might imagine, Aus­tralia would be better informed and with greater scope for influence and action in pursuit of its own interests if it enjoyed mutual trust and close strategic relations with South-­East Asia, especially Indonesia.

Living with divergence

In managing this emerging difference in outlook with South-­East Asia, Australia will be relatively alone among the AUKUS partners. For the United Kingdom and the United States, South-­East Asia is just one of many regions they must prioritise. The Biden administration has accorded a high priority to its traditional alliance relationships in the Indo-­Pacific, especially with the Philippines, but has given less attention to the rest of South-­East Asia, especially Indonesia. Biden did not attend the 2023 ASEAN Summit hosted by Indonesian president Widodo. Unlike other recent US non-­attendance at such summits, his absence was not explained by a crisis at home; this time, Indonesia and ASEAN were simply not sufficiently compelling to warrant presidential travel.

Australia, by virtue of its geography, has a long-­term challenge: to reconcile a China-­focused strategic policy of greater enmeshment with the United States with a desire for closer relations with its South-­East Asian neighbours, following the Keating-­era vision of “security in Asia”. AUKUS makes this vision more difficult to achieve, because it increases the risk of a worst-­case scenario in which Australia is seen as an anglophone outlier, playing an outsized role in defence and security issues while bringing little to the table in terms of economic cooperation. Defeating this perception is possible, but it would require broader investment in the non-­defence aspects of Australia’s relations with South-­East Asia – for example, business and education links, as well as development assistance.

What Evan Laksmana has described as a growing “strategic divergence” between Australia and South-­East Asia has largely been caused by rapid shifts in Australian policy over the past decade. Since 2011, Australian policy (like that of other US allies in the region, such as Japan) has changed radically – embracing an increased US presence in Aus­tralia, moving clearly to identify China as a threat, and seeking to project force at greater distance, including through AUKUS. Over the same period, the strategic policies of most South-­East Asian countries have been largely static.

This divergence puts the onus on Australia to initiate and lead a much deeper dialogue with South-­East Asian countries about the security choices it is making, and why. Unfortunately, this kind of conversation with our neighbours will only be possible once we’ve started to have it at home. 



Areas of expertise: Indo-Pacific strategy; Australian foreign policy; Southeast Asia.