AUKUS threatens ASEAN, not just China
Published: Sep 27, 2021 11:52 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

For almost two years now ASEAN and China have been together intensely focused on overcoming the COVID-19 epidemic. China is pouring in massive number of PPEs, masks, ventilators and has achieved tremendous success in surmounting the unprecedented collective challenge.

At the same time, with the years of dialogue and negotiations, ASEAN and China have finally achieved calm seas on the previously disturbed efforts toward calm and tranquility due to the South China Sea disputes hyped up some of the ASEAN members. They are all now looking forward to the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea with China by 2022.

Optimism has been at its highest for Asia's post-pandemic economic recovery with the continuing peaceful economic rise of China. There is hope to avert a "Cold War 2.0" that was discussed at US President Joe Biden's phone call to President Xi Jinping on September 10. It concluded with a cooperative note on the pandemic and climate change challenges.

But just five days after that hopeful call the US, UK and Australia shook the global high spirits off with the announcement of a new tripartite defense alliance called "AUKUS." The news carried a menacing announcement of a deal to "support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy." This immediately triggered alarm bells in many capitals of ASEAN and also in China.

Indonesia and Malaysia immediately warned of an "arms race" being triggered by the announcement. Malaysia announced a mission to China to consult on the matter. Elder ASEAN statesman Mahathir Mohamad blasted Australia "You have escalated the threat". Thailand's respected writer Kavi Chongkittavorn said "Bangkok views the latest US move as a destabilizing factor..."

The Hanoi Times reported on Spokesperson of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Le Thi Thu Hang's polite admonition "The nuclear energy must be developed and used for peaceful purposes and serve socio-economic development, ensuring safety for humans and the environment." To think nuclear submarines ensure safety for mankind and nature is quite a stretch of the imagination.

Singapore's reaction too was erroneously reported by Western media as an endorsement as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said Singapore "hoped" the AUKUS would "contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region." Hoping is an admonition. AUKUS could be useful but also harmful. The immediate effect is already hurting the calm of Asia.

As a Filipino, I am very sad to say that the Philippines' Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin created a very bad impression on its ASEAN partners and in the world by his seriously misaligned and misguided position on the AUKUS with mumbo-jumbo about antiquated "Cold War" "balance-of-power" rationalization of a fawning tribute to the AUKUS saying it "would be beneficial in the long term."

In the short term, Locsin's endorsement of AUKUS has already undermined ASEAN centrality in the affairs of the region. It has already damaged the Philippines' standing in the ASEAN and disrupted ASEAN solidarity, sentiment and consensus which is overwhelmingly against the AUKUS alliance and nuclear sub deal. Neither is Locsin's fawning appreciated in the West, notably among the EU.

The EU has long felt the absence of US leadership, heightened in 2020 in the Munich Security Conference where the theme was "Westlessness." That drift has hardened with France and Germany skeptical of US leadership; particularly after the US' "stab in the back" stealing the sub deal with Australia from under the French while Germany licks its wounds from the Nord Stream 2 sanctions.

Australians themselves are deeply divided about the AUKUS with former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating in a public statement saying Prime Minister Scott Morrison has led Australia stray from "the Asian Century" and back to the "jaded and faded Anglosphere." Former prime minister Kevin Rudd worried about Australian giving up its defense sovereignty to the US-UK in the submarine deal.

The biggest potential loser from the AUKUS ruckus is ASEAN if it does not reinvigorate its solidarity over the issue and rein in the Philippines' wayward foreign secretary. The rise of China equates to the rise of Asia and ASEAN, and if we are all distracted in this region then it would be tragic for Asia. We in the Philippines have appealed to President Rodrigo R. Duterte to bridle the secretary of foreign affairs. ASEAN must restore its gravitas on this issue and denounce the AUKUS together. The peace, tranquility, productivity and prosperity of the region is at stake.

The author is the founder of Philippine-BRICS strategic Studies, a Philippine think tank, and writer-columnist of SovereignPH.com and the Philippine News Agency news site, broadcast and online political-economic host and commentator. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn