The 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.
The US, Australia and Britain unveiled details of a plan to provide Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines from the early of next decade to counter China’s growing threat in the Indo-Pacific.
The Western order has endured decades of relatively unchallenged systemic threat, until the twin challenges posed by a resurgent Russia and a revisionist power in Beijing have jolted the slumber out of the West that has long been fixated by 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 fall-out of the failure of these powers to accept the clarion call, and the results have been forthcoming.
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 came to power created the same effect, with different measures and results by different US presidencies.
The pivot to Asia by 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 supportive framework from supporting Beijing’s entry to the WTO in 2001 to the transfer of technological and market support in hoping for an eventual or gradual transition to greater openness and freedom have yielded counterproductive impact.
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 ignorance of the Hague’s ruling, and escalatory moves on Taiwan have all challenged the decades old international system that is based on rules, and adherence to them.
Efforts by the West to court greater responses and measures that can stand up to Beijing’s power manovures have been largely futile, as these regional players are too deeply embedded under Beijing’s orbit and economic grip to risk their future economic survivability and the ensuing internal political survival.
Most have been fearful of the security repercussions and the economic fall-out,as regional trade has been predominantly shaped by Beijing’s comprehensive and strategic pursuit from RCEP to BRI, in providing the much needed lifeline and financial support to the needy players that have in turn seen the reluctance to antagonise Beijing or to choose a side.
Seeing the subdued response by these players in lacking the seriousness shoring up their own capacities and defences, the West is left with no choice but to stem the tide early on. 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 truthful, 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 remains pragmatic and highly realistic on its current vulnerability, and has also made clear its intent to continue working with Beijing in an open, transparent and engaging manner that will further foster diplomatic and meaningful long term fruitful relationships based on mutual trust and respect. At the very least, it is mindful of its security needs and is doing the right thing, albeit the potential bashing and repercussions.
This notion of enhancing bilateral and regional ties with Beijing in a supportive and mutually conducive aspect has been the main facet of foreign policy making of regional players, and some have been forthright in maintaining the stance that while diplomatic and peaceful engagement remains the priority, the need to be bold in facing the real threats and happenings on the ground must not be at the expense of preserving the current equilibrium and status quo of “not rocking the boat”.
Australia and New Zealand remain the first line of Western presence and containment in the region, and they both cannot afford to fall under Beijing’s measures or power threats in deja vu domino effect. Both of them 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 trap.
Accusations by Beijing and increasingly similar adoption of this tone by many regional players including Malaysia that the primary cause of tension and conflict in the region is the provocative acts by the US and the West in militarising the region and forcing nations to choose sides, hold no water and even backfiring.
In international relations as with Newton’s third law of motion, for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. Beijing’s intentions and actions in the region have invited the natural and necessary counter reactions from the established powers and guardians of the system, which has been universally accepted and abided by by all legitimate nations. When economic and soft power containments fail, the only obvious last stance will be to provide greater and more direct hard power deterrence. The question most fervently argued is which side actually first caused the security dilemma to spiral out of control and the ensuing arms race, which will never be answered based on political affiliation alone. Thucydides’ trap is hard to escape, but wise nations always prioritise their own survival against any short term sweet baits.
ASEAN and its related platforms have once been a huge hope by the West in helping its cause to slow down Beijing’s march, but events on the ground proved that investment to be a relative failure. The shift to deeper bilateral engagements with individual countries, especially the ones at the greatest direct threat, has also yielded relatively subpar returns, as powerful ingrained regional traps and Beijing dogma still loom large.
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, urgent and holistic early measures and deterrence approach through their various joint defence tie ups and reciprocal access agreements which have also attracted other players that acknowledge the realistic set up and trends on the ground.
Beijing has been reacting with both ferocity and disappointment over the 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 scrambles of measures taken are a direct result of the scope and intensity of its regional and global goals that have translated into the range of actions that have fuelled individual, regional, global and systemic fears that will naturally warrant the impending countermeasures. Should Beijing or Moscow choose a different path, and one that is in line with the rules based system and less combative to other nations’s rights and interests, the responses will be naturally different, even more accommodating and supporting.
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.
Regional hypocrisy is also at play, where condemnations and fears have been swift, in accusing the West of fearmongering and stoking regional arms race and nuclear annihilation, but remain silent and subdued on the escalating nuclear ambition by Beijing in the region through its nuclear SSBN/SLBM capacities in the South China Sea and beyond. Quietly, 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 immediate or future 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 bilateral pursuit 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 this, signals the openness to engage and to be fully direct and realistic on the manoeuvre, unlike other powers.
AUKUS remains a symbol of a great message to Beijing and regional players for now as a powerful deterrence and readiness to step up, and it remains a crucially needed counterbalancing measure that will bring assurances and increasing guarantee that the West’s pivot and readiness to maintain its Indo Pacific presence are here to stay. Whether individually as a country or the region collectively, we remain sitting ducks to any external threats that are far lethal and enduring in nature, with no matching capacities to provide deterrence, let alone second strike capacities.
The presence of AUKUS provides a temporary stop gap measure, and 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 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 peace and freedom, not the opposite path of creating conflicts, chaos and destruction.