In recent weeks, few issues have triggered as much debate on the future of the Indo-Pacific as the unveiling of the AUKUS trilateral security partnership.
This new defence pact was forged in mid-September by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It includes an agreement to enhance Australia’s defence capacity through technology transfer of nuclear-powered submarines and other underwater capabilities. It will also build Australia’s capacity for cyber-security and artificial intelligence, and give the country a hand in the development and sale of high-tech missiles.
The three countries in the AUKUS partnership are united by perceptions that, first, future threats in the region will arise from conventional security competition (involving traditional military means and instruments), second, that they lack the credibility to deter coercive behaviour in the region, and, third, that the way forward is to share the financial burden of safeguarding their common interests.
Many of Indonesia’s most prominent strategic thinkers have had their say about AUKUS. Some see it as part of the bigger picture of strategic interplay between the United States and China. Others have taken a more reactionary approach, viewing it as a hostile development that could harm Indonesia. However, most Indonesians appear to view AUKUS as a destabilising force for Indonesia and Southeast Asia more broadly, whether now or down the track.
Anxiety over an incoming arms race
For Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia, the context in which AUKUS arrived has raised concerns of heightened tensions and reactionary countermeasures from China and its allies, who view themselves as targets of the pact.
While deterrence may be the effect in the long run, Indonesia’s challenges in the short term will remain the same. Indonesia is still in the middle of plans to modernise its military, particularly its naval capacity, to impose greater control over the massive span of water under its watch. But now it must also deal with an increased presence of higher-capacity submarines and a likely response from countries threatened by the development (particularly China), in the form of more advanced anti-submarine technology and other technologies Indonesia has no power to control or even properly observe.
Concerns that AUKUS will therefore provoke “the continuation of an arms race and military power projection in the region” were expressed by Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs through an official statement and by Minister Retno Marsudi herself, and were echoed by other spokespeople in various events and outlets.
For years, Indonesia has tried to avoid open conflict by attempting to divert competition between major powers in the Indo-Pacific into more cooperative projects. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific exemplifies this effort. The arrival of AUKUS has complicated this approach.
Writing in The Jakarta Post, Abdul Kadir Jailani, the Foreign Ministry’s director general for Asian, Pacific and African Affairs, mentioned that Indonesia was the first country to remind Australia of its commitment to non-proliferation and to the overall stability of the region, referring to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.
But Indonesia’s diplomatic reminder to Australia has now been blown out of proportion and the AUKUS agreement painted as a “betrayal” of Indonesia by Australia. The hashtag #AustraliaBerbohong (“Australia lied”) was briefly trending on Twitter, though how much it organically represented the real views of Indonesians (and was not just spread by paid “buzzers”) is questionable.
However, public sentiment does reflect fears of a potential NATO-like pact in the region. This has not been helped by alarmist news articles (like this one or this one). Some have either oversimplified the development or outright misled readers – for example, by obscuring the difference between a nuclear-powered submarine and a submarine carrying nuclear warheads, asserting that Australia is building a nuclear weapon.
Even politicians have struggled with this distinction (or sought to capitalise on the confusion), calling on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to consider a “harder diplomatic approach”, or for Indonesia to express its protest via reactionary military diplomacy – or even a joint exercise with China.
Regardless, the fear that Indonesia will be forced into choosing one bloc at the cost of another is very real, and is shared by many.
Perhaps this is why the common response to AUKUS in the Indonesian media has been to refer to the potential damage it could do to ASEAN’s relevance and neutrality. Critics have noted the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality Declaration, as well as possible indirect harm to the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, or even the influence the pact could have on Indonesia’s free and active foreign policy principles.
Far-fetched as it may be, some have even claimed there is potential for Indonesia to be swept into “the AUKUS bloc”. Consequently, some observers have argued for a stronger response to AUKUS, including siding with China or France to oppose AUKUS should it end up transgressing existing agreements.
Looking beyond reactionary comments, more informed Indonesian analysts take the view that the development should not come as a surprise, reminding Indonesia of the realities it faces.
Rizal Sukma of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has argued that Indonesia should face the need for a return to realpolitik, as multilateral diplomacy focused on norm-building continues to fade. In the absence of “a serious alternative to the regional flux”, Evan Laksmana has commented that countries will be increasingly called to consider options outside the existing multilateral bodies in the region.
Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto, from the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, suggested in Foreign Policy that AUKUS should serve as a lesson for Southeast Asia to pay more attention to eroding sovereignty in the region and offer a credible response to China’s aggressive behaviour. Indonesian diplomat Arif Havas Oegroseno, meanwhile, has suggested that Indonesia should continue to play a mediating role by establishing its own trilateral arrangement with the United States and China.
All these comments point to a similar reality: Indonesia should stick to responding to the core area of concern – the increasing competition between United States and China – rather than be too worried about AUKUS, while continuing to build its own strategic leverage and capacity.
But there are still some in Indonesia who think that, while the country has previously had no choice but to engage in small- or middle-power diplomacy to buffer geopolitical developments, it now has the leverage and appeal to punch above its weight – and should start doing so.
Australia’s homework to mitigate sensitivities
Indonesians have bemoaned a leadership vacuum in the Indo-Pacific since the United States departed the region under former President Donald Trump. But now that the United States’ attention has returned, Indonesia’s main worry is losing relevance in future strategic calculations in the region.
Indonesia has long contributed to the regional security architecture through its leadership role in ASEAN, with the aim of tempering domination by major powers and supporting stability through collective leadership. This has been undercut by the arrival of AUKUS, which occurred without consultation with Indonesia or ASEAN. To Indonesia, this signalled that the major powers do not see Indonesia or ASEAN countries as important in security calculations for their own region.
This, coupled with Indonesia’s fears of being vulnerable to foreign interference, is what has caused the sense of distrust that greeted the submarine announcement. Australia’s proximity, as well as its history of diplomatic incidents with Indonesia, has not helped either. Many Indonesians are likely to perceive the possible ‘threat’ of an Australian nuclear-powered submarine appearing in the seas around Indonesia quite differently to, say, a US nuclear-powered submarine.
Some in Jakarta know that China’s behaviour needs checking and that AUKUS could help restrain China. But responses suggesting that AUKUS could also harm Indonesia’s future interests by bringing an arms race to its backyard and increasing its maritime vulnerability are also understandable.
Australia’s military build-up means it now needs to work to maintain the confidence of its partners in the region. Australia has said that AUKUS will not detract from its support for the ASEAN-led regional architecture. However, neither Indonesia nor ASEAN is in a position to accept such a statement at face value. Even the Quad, which is more of a consultative forum, has not made any major effort to complement ASEAN-led architecture.
Australia could build confidence by showing Indonesia how this development will benefit it in the long run, rather than becoming a future threat. Australia should also seek to improve its defence relations with Indonesia, a country with a similar interest in defending the rules-based regional order. It could do this in many ways, including technology transfers. And Australia should also continue to support ASEAN’s key mechanisms for major power relations, particularly the East Asia Summit.
Australia, after all, has an interest in showing up as an “Asian power”, not a western state that just happens to be located at the bottom of Asia.