A new Cold War in the offing in the Indo-Pacific waters?

China's geopolitical aim in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region is deepening its economic ties with the region to the point where countries are drawn into its orbit by economic gravity

Peter Rodgers Oct 10, 2021
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AUKUS agreement between US, UK and Australia

For many, the United States' new initiative with the United Kingdom and Australia - AUKUS - is reminiscent of the Cold War and UKUSA, an intelligence-sharing pact signed 75 years ago. The AUKUS deal is expected to have far-reaching but uncertain consequences for Asia's future strategic balance. The tripartite partnership's most significant feature is that Australia will be equipped with a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), which will have far better range and endurance than the exorbitantly expensive French-built diesel submarine fleet it will replace.

While China was not specifically named in the AUKUS statement, it plainly indicates a hardening of US policy toward China, as well as a major increase of strategic stakes. This historic move leaves no doubt that Washington is preparing for the new Cold War with Beijing.

For Australia, the contract is basically a bet on Washington's long-term commitment to preserving its military superiority in Asia. Some analysts believe that in exchange for SSNs, the US will want Australia to play a significant role in its attempts to control China, including engagement in any future confrontation with China.

AUKUS and Southeast Asia

For Southeast Asia, the AUKUS alliance is expected to have significant ramifications as the region is located in the geographic core of the new partnership's major emphasis, the Indo-Pacific.  The governments in the region have not made any comments on the deal thus far. There is reason to believe that their reaction to the new effort, whether in public or private, will be extremely equivocal.

Officials in some countries, notably those at the receiving end of China's rising military strength in the South China Sea, are likely to discreetly welcome the move, which will put heavier cost on any Chinese military adventurism. After the Kabul catastrophe, Asian allies are in complete disbelief regarding United States' long-term support.

On the other hand, any step that raises the risk of war is sure to cause concern in the area. While AUKUS may help prevent Chinese military action and lessen the chance of confrontation, it also assures that if a fight does break out, it will be far more catastrophic. Southeast Asia, which is located in the heart of the Indo-Pacific, might be on the front lines.

There will definitely be regional concerns about the partnership's influence on Southeast Asia, such as whether it would absorb the area into a wider strategic struggle, remove it from its self-proclaimed regional 'centrality', and undermine its hard-won strategic autonomy.

ASEAN concerns

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has effectively established a major position in Asia's diplomatic architecture since the conclusion of the Cold War. ASEAN has been able to exert some agency through its agenda-shaping powers as the host of big international conferences such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum, a modest degree of authority that has been granted to it by stronger outside powers.

But it's not unexpected that ASEAN's most assertive phase coincided with the post-Cold War period of relative strategic stability. It remains to be seen if the shibboleth of "ASEAN centrality" endures the return to serious strategic rivalry in any meaningful sense. Southeast Asians' greatest worry is that the new structure will leave them as a "strategic spectator," subject to forces beyond its control.

Therefore, it's easy to see AUKUS as a manifestation of American dissatisfaction with the region's neutrality. Southeast Asian countries have been slow to join the US drive to form a regional anti-China alliance, and with good cause. They profit enormously from commerce with Beijing and, increasingly, from foreign direct investment from Chinese businesses. They have discrete points of friction with China, ranging from maritime and territorial issues to concerns pertaining to Beijing's connections to overseas Chinese diaspora groups.

China's bait 

While the United States made a security move in the region, China is trying to exploit its economic edge in Southeast Asia. Beijing submitted an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and revealed that its geopolitical aim in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region is deepening its economic ties with the region to the point where countries are drawn into its orbit by economic gravity.

Although it fears Chinese hegemony in the future, the Southeast Asian region has little desire for the prevailing American view of China's struggle as part of a worldwide fight between democracy and authoritarianism, which was reflected in the AUKUS statement.

It's still unclear if the Aukus project will succeed in the end. After all, the four-year Trump presidency has taught America's allies how international agreements may fall apart suddenly if the administration in Washington changes. However, the AUKUS alliance has definitely sparked worries that the world is on the brink of a new Cold War, with overtones of the last Cold War. This time, though, the new Cold War is being fought in the Indo-Pacific waters, where competing interests might clash.

(The writer is an international relations graduate of Penn State University, US. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at peterrodgers@mail.com)