Since the 26th of October, Indonesia has been openly voicing its views and concerns regarding AUKUS, the new military pact made between the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK) and Australia that was announced on the 15th of September alongside the provision of eight nuclear submarines to Australia. The emergence of more nuclear technology in the Indo-Pacific has raised worry among Indonesia and other ASEAN nations such as Malaysia of an increasingly intense weapons race and power projection in the region. Though officials from AUKUS’ member states deny it, many international analysts believe the alliance’s formation to be a means to offshore-balancing against the rising influence of China in the Indo-Pacific.
Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo has expressed Indonesia’s concern on the military partnership on multiple occasions during ASEAN’s East Asia Summit (EAS) late last month when he commented, “there is nothing to be gained from continuing this conflict situation and we must resolve it soon”. Moreover, President Jokowi has criticised AUKUS for raising tensions in the region, stating directly to Prime Minister Scott Morrison that Australia must be more open to the member states of ASEAN, seemingly scrutinising the lack of consultation to ASEAN.
Reasonably, an explicit military alliance between the US, UK and Australia cannot be ignored by any country, moreover Indonesia and ASEAN nations who are located near the Indo-Pacific where US-China rivalries and power projections are most intense. Furthermore, the pact is among the most significant security agreements between the three nations since the second World War, an ominous sign. AUKUS’ secretive handling and use of nuclear technology also caused a lot of distrust between them and ASEAN, which President Jokowi commented upon saying, “we must be able to change a culture of conflict into a culture of peace, (and turn a) trust deficit into strategic trust”.
It is important that the reveal of AUKUS came as a surprise to the world. A surprise not only to the nations of ASEAN but even traditional Australian allies such as France who were kept out of the loop and have since expressed discontent, having lost their own submarine deal with Australia due to the pact’s secrecy.
The act has even been deemed “a stab in the back” by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Due to the deal of 8 nuclear submarines offered by the U.S to Australia, France’s agreement with Australia for 12 diesel powered submarines costing 37 billion dollars has been scrapped. Calling the US and Australia’s behaviour “unacceptable”, Paris recalled its ambassadors from both countries for consultation. For the U.S, this is something that has not happened between these allies since the 18th century and is turbulent to their relationship.
However, the behaviour of the US in particular towards Indonesia and ASEAN has not been completely concerning. In fact, the US government and President Joe Biden has expressed more care towards ASEAN than during the previous Trump administration.
This can be seen in the US support to Indonesia during the pandemic with vaccine-provisions, their presence at the previously mentioned EAS and also recently in the meeting between both presidents at the COP26 Summit as Glasgow, Scotland on the 1st of November.
“I believe under your Excellency’s leadership, we can further strengthen our cooperation. I appreciate President Biden’s leadership in various global issues (such as) climate change, green energy, COVID-19 and democracy”, the Indonesia President conveyed to President Biden, displaying a more intimate dialogue between the two nations.
These events are not only a sign of increasing US interest in the Indo-Pacific region but also a sign of the increasing strength of ASEAN. The East Asian Summit held by ASEAN was extraordinary in its ability to summon and gather several non-ASEAN member states and their leaders in one forum such as the United States, Australia and Japan, but also South Korea and even China and Russia. It is an indication that the combined strength of relatively smaller nations can impact those we deem to have ‘larger influence’.
Nevertheless, the formation AUKUS, tangible transactions of military assets and rivalries between ‘the East and West’ across the Pacific is something beyond what Indonesia and ASEAN can prevent. Still, there is a certain niche and opportunity for Indonesia to strive for within this geopolitical uncertainty.
As China’s navy continues to rapidly grow and the US continues to make alliances to check the former, Indonesia is in prime position more than ever to adapt and act as an exclusive ‘balancer’ between both powers, both in its own national interest and via alliances e.g. ASEAN. Doing so would only be true to our constitution’s opening, “(to) participate in carrying out world order based on freedom, eternal peace and social justice”.***