AUKUS remains a symbol of a clear message to Beijing, and regional players, as a powerful deterrence to step up militarily if necessary; and remains a crucially needed counterbalancing measure that will bring assurances and guarantee that the West’s pivot and readiness to maintain its Indo-Pacific presence are here to stay.
The recent landmark pact of AUKUS underscores concerns over China’s growing military power in the Indo-Pacific region, and it remains a natural and expected response to a rising power that is deemed to be consistently following a bellicose path that threatens the foundation of the rules-based order.
Under their 2021 defence deal, the US, Australia and Britain unveiled details of a plan to provide Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines from the early next decade to counter China’s growing threat in the Indo-Pacific.
The Western order has endured decades of the relatively unchallenged systemic threat until the twin challenges posed by a resurgent Russia and a revisionist China have jolted the slumber out of the West that has long been fixated on the fight on terror and other non-traditional challenges.
Time, patience and efforts have been ongoing since the end of the Cold War to support and push, and to give space for both Beijing and Moscow to embrace the holistic yearning for a liberal and democratic order, especially at the earlier parts of the new wave of democracy in the 90s. No consistent Plan B has been in place yet to face the fallout of the failure of these powers to accept the clarion call of democracy, and the results have been forthcoming.
West's lost time
Russian aggression that started in the 2000s in Georgia and continued in the decade after in Ukraine marked a need for the West to step up its response and containment measures. Beijing's assertive chess board maneuvering that has picked up steam since President Xi Jinping came to power created the same effect, with different measures and results by different US presidencies.
The pivot to Asia by former US president Barack Obama was long argued to be the start of the tacit realisation by the West that it has lost a precious two-decade time frame in halting Beijing’s momentum while it was preoccupied with the war on terror. Years of a supportive framework from supporting Beijing’s entry to the WTO in 2001 to the transfer of technological and market support in the hope of a gradual transition to greater openness and freedom have been counterproductive.
Expansion of Chinese blue-water naval capacity with takeovers of strategic ports from Europe to the Middle East, with aggressive hard and soft power projections that pose a systemic and structural challenge to the established normative and rules-based system built by the West, have been deemed as the final wake-up call. Bellicose actions in the South China Sea with disregard of the Hague’s ruling, and escalatory moves on Taiwan, have all challenged the decades old international system.
Efforts by the West to make regional players stand up to Beijing’s power maneuvers have been largely futile, as these countries were too deeply embedded in Beijing’s economic orbit to risk their future survivability and political survival.
Most have been fearful of the security repercussions and the economic fallout, as regional trade has been predominantly shaped by Beijing’s strategic pursuits from the RCEP to the BRI, which provided the much-needed lifeline and financial support to the needy players who have been reluctant to antagonise Beijing or choose a side.
ASEAN's timid responses
Seeing the subdued response by these players in lacking the seriousness in shoring up their own capacities and defences, the West is left with no choice but to stem the tide on their own. Having learned from past Cold War experiences and needing to protect the first line of defence, realistic measures of deterrence and containment are the natural responses.
This is reflected in Canberra’s open and honest acknowledgment of the threat it faces, and is mirrored in the needed actions that will assure its long-term security and survival. It has also at thes ame time made clear its intent to continue working with Beijing in an open, transparent and engaging manner in a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.
Australia and New Zealand remain the first line of Western presence and containment in the region, and both remain the face and frontline of the West. Expectations on ASEAN and regional conflict prevention mechanisms with various deterrence and confidence-building measures have failed to lower the tone and depth of Beijing’s hard power actions and coercive efforts in the region that have fuelled regional fear and deepened regional insecurities.
ASEAN and its related platforms have once been a huge hope by the West in helping to slow down Beijing’s march, but events on the ground proved that strategic investment to be a relative failure. The shift to deeper bilateral engagements with individual countries, especially the ones at the greatest direct threat from Beijing's expansionism, has also yielded relatively subpar returns.
Only a few players directly at the forefront of future crises and conflicts, especially Manila and existing Western allies including Tokyo and Seoul have charted a far more strategic and deterrent approach through various joint defence tie-ups and reciprocal access agreements which have also attracted other players.
Beijing has been reacting with both ferocity and disappointment over perceived anti-China moves with its so-called 5-4-3-2 (Five Eyes Intelligence Pact, the Quad, AUKUS, & bilateral approach) Western containment efforts, and with future potential expansion of Quad and the talks of the creation of an Asian NATO. But little does it realise that these measures are a direct result of its quest of regional muscle-flexing and global strategic goals.
AUKUS born out of Canberra's vulnerability
AUKUS is a natural inescapable reality born out of primarily Canberra’s open fear and acknowledgment of its vulnerability and being virtually a sitting duck against the might of Beijing’s long arm of hard power capacities. Canberra’s capability to take this route is also pillared by its Western identity and support, but other non Western players in the region are not limited by this advantage as they too, receive huge openings for Western security assurances but remained tied by their conventional policy option and regional norms. Predominant to that will be the inability to break from regional trap and the entrenched denial syndrome of the threat setting and future risks, one which Canberra and increasingly other players are ready to ditch to ensure their national interests and survival remain paramount, in line with the first doctrine of international relations and the realist approach.
uietly, many regional players are welcoming the greater Western security presence and deterrence, including AUKUS, as a needed tacit message and deterrence against Beijing’s onslaught and intimidation, but choosing to sing a different tune publicly to conform to their established individual and regional foreign policy orientation and to avoid inviting Beijing’s wrath.
Contrary to claims and rapid condemnations and fears, AUKUS does not pose any threat to regional security calculations, and it remains the regional saviour for a more balanced, open, transparent and strategic power balancer that can deter any attempt to alter regional power parity or to reinforce Beijing’s regional hegemonic intention. The nature of AUKUS and the ready willingness to brief other nations on the details and purpose of military grouping signals the openness to engage,
AUKUS remains a symbol of a clear message to Beijing, and regional players, as a powerful deterrence to step up militarily if necessary; and remains a crucial counterbalancing measure that will bring assurances and guarantee that the West’s pivot and readiness to maintain its Indo-Pacific presence are here to stay.
The least that the doubters and the anti-West players in the region can expect is that the Western powers that are backing this, especially the US, are the ones who have created the rules-based order in the first place and have strived to preserve it for common global peace, freedom and prosperity. AUKUS is thus meant to secure and preserve the decades-old rules-based system and the foundation of regional peace and operational freedom, not the opposite path of conflicts, chaos and destruction.
(The author is a strategic and security analyst who has worked with the University of Malaya. Views are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)