Indonesian President Joko Widodo (center) speaks to journalists during his visit early last year to a military base in the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea. While Jakarta is concerned about Chinese incursions into waters claimed by Indonesia, it has no interest in tolerating nuclear submarines supplied under AUKUS plying its waters either. Photo: AFP / Handout / Indonesian Presidential Palace

In recent years, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been struggling to maintain its unity and “centrality” in regional security affairs. Its unity has been riven by the US-China contest for regional dominance. Worse, its confidence and reputation have been shaken by its failure to manage two major security issues in its region – the crisis in Myanmar and that in the South China Sea.

Now two big-power security agreements that reinforce each other and cover the Southeast Asian region – the Quad and AUKUS – are usurping ASEAN’s aspiration of “centrality” in regional security affairs and further undermining its unity.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is a security forum of Australia, India, Japan and the US that purports to maintain a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” The Quad leaders met in person in Washington last week and reaffirmed that they will “champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas.”  

This statement alludes to what they consider China’s illegitimate claims in the South China Sea. This is somewhat awkward for the US because it alone among major powers has not ratified UNCLOS. The US – which is now the driving force behind the Quad – clearly hopes the grouping will become an anti-China security partnership and is pushing it in that direction despite reservations by India, perhaps Japan and parts of Southeast Asia.

The statement from the Quad meeting declared with a straight face, “We reaffirm our strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality.” Perhaps that is the hope, but the effect of the US-instigated security partnership is the opposite.

Indeed, it appears to some ASEAN countries that the US wants to use the Quad as a regional tool to advance its effort to constrain and contain China. Rather than supporting ASEAN centrality, the Quad – if effective – will become central to regional security management, particularly in the South China Sea.

While the Quad members give lip service to ASEAN’s aspirations, they have apparently lost confidence in ASEAN because its members increasingly eschew Western democratic values and it is ineffective in its managing regional security affairs.

AUKUS is an agreement under which the US and the UK are to supply nuclear-powered submarine and underwater-drone technology to Australia. A major use of these submarines will be to maintain the balance of power in the South China Sea. 

The agreement also calls for “rotations of US fighters and bombers to northern Australia” and potentially to “acquire more rotational basing for its submarines in Perth, Western Australia.” So the US will eventually be using Australia for its surveillance and deterrence of China in the South China Sea.

As former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has said, “AUKUS, like the Quad before it, demonstrated to ASEAN the cost of its dithering and indecision in the complex fast-evolving geopolitical environment.” James Chin of the University of Tasmania observed that “AUKUS reinforces the idea that the opinions of the ASEAN members matter little when it comes to superpowers and how they operate in the region.”

The new big-power security architecture also exacerbates the divisions within ASEAN regarding the US-China struggle for regional dominance. Washington’s stepped-up confrontational policy and actions against China in the South China Sea have created a tit-for tat upward spiral of shows of force that are clearly making many ASEAN members nervous.

They fear conflict between the big powers that will have collateral damage for them. Their fundamental concern is to avoid being caught in between China and the US and having to choose between them. 

Some have already apparently chosen, despite any rhetoric to the contrary. Cambodia and Laos are firmly in China’s camp, while Singapore and the Philippines seem to be siding with the US, although not as firmly as Washington would like. Clearly the cracks in ASEAN are widening under the pressure of external powers.

Few ASEAN countries are willing directly and publicly to criticize the current regional hegemon, the US. That makes their expression of concern with AUKUS all that more significant.

The office of Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said of AUKUS, “It will provoke other powers to take more aggressive action in this region, especially in the South China Sea.”

Its statement also reaffirmed that Malaysia would continue to ensure its regional waters are a ”zone of peace, freedom and neutrality” as agreed in 1971 by the founding members of ASEAN – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. This puts some pressure on members of the bloc that may be reluctant to voice support for this fundamental ASEAN principle in this situation.

Reacting to the announcement of AUKUS, Indonesia expressed deep concern “over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region” and called on Australia to comply with UNCLOS. It has good reason to be concerned about the agreement because it will enable future deployment of Australian and US submarines and drones through its waters.

The use of Indonesian waters for such missions in the South China Sea would undermine Jakarta’s carefully constructed “dynamic equilibrium” foreign policy. Besides that, it is historically very sensitive about military vessels in or under its waters and has its own view of the relevant UNCLOS provisions and what constitutes infractions thereof.

Moreover, Indonesia does not want to be in the geographic middle of a possible US-Australia-China military conflict. Also, allowing the passage of the submarines and drones could provoke domestic protests in Indonesia that could in turn even disturb relations with Australia and the US.

Other ASEAN members have different views. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin welcomed AUKUS, arguing that “the enhancement of a near-abroad ally’s ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it” in the region. 

Singapore was ambiguous, simply stating it hoped that AUKUS “would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.”

Some ASEAN nations have been pushing for the organization to issue a joint statement on these developments, but they may not be able to find common ground.

These US-driven realpolitik strategic moves are meant to help Washington against what it sees as the “China threat.” It also claims to be helping Southeast Asia defend against China’s rise, and perceived threat.

The US and its allies wanted to use ASEAN or some of its members as a bulwark and buffer against China. But they would not cooperate to the extent that they wanted. So the US and its allies went around and over them to form these pacts. 

As a result, ASEAN has become collateral political damage. It has been weakened and split. Some may wonder if that was the intended outcome. With a divided ASEAN, the US can peel off countries like the Philippines and Singapore – and, it hopes, albeit unrealistically, Vietnam – to join its military containment strategy.

Whatever its intent for ASEAN – to help or to weaken – the effect is the latter. And a weakened and divided ASEAN benefits its strategic competitor China. Moreover, these moves have accelerated the motion of the geopolitical tectonic plates in the region, presenting new and critical – even existential – challenges for the struggling organization.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.