Australia will be left stranded as a lonely Western outpost in Asia

Apr 15, 2023
The globe close up, South East Asia.

It is understandable that Australian leaders may feel insecure, even paranoid, about Australia’s future in the Asian twenty-first century. As Western power recedes from the world ­– especially from East Asia – Australia and New Zealand will be left stranded as lonely Western outposts in Asia.

But it’s fatal to find emotionally comfortable solutions to difficult geopolitical challenges. This is the fundamental problem with AUKUS. It provides comfort by creating new bonds with one’s old Anglo-Saxon brothers. It doesn’t address Australia’s strategic dilemmas.

Since Australia’s friends and allies are far away, it makes sense for Australia (unlike Canada) to develop a strong domestic defence capability for deterrence. Similarly, it makes sense for Australia to preserve its alliance with the US. But the UK? In 1950, the UK was the third-largest economy in the world. By 2050, it will struggle to be in the top ten. And when Britain feels that its domestic needs are more important than distant alliances, it drops those allies. It’s no secret that both Australia and Singapore were abandoned in World War II. And that Britain shut down its naval base in Singapore in 1968 when budgetary pressures increased. It’s always a mistake to bet on the past. Better to bet on the future.

There’s no question that Australia’s most important neighbour for the next hundred years will be Indonesia. Australia will have to develop a close relationship with Indonesia (and its other ASEAN neighbours). And this is what makes the AUKUS decision so dangerous –­ Australia has sent a signal that it’s not going to work on enhancing its security by working more closely with its neighbours. Indonesia clearly felt that Australia was poking it in the eye. In response to the AUKUS deal, it used diplomatic language such as, “Indonesia stresses the importance of Australia’s commitment to continue meeting all of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations” and “Indonesia calls on Australia to maintain its commitment towards regional peace, stability and security in accordance with the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.” Since the Javanese are always understated in expressing their concerns, such clear statements register the extent of Indonesia’s unease over AUKUS.

Many Labor leaders in Australia, in the past, have understood that it would be unwise for the country to emerge as an Israel in its region. By doing so, Australia would be militarily strong but politically isolated and psychologically insecure for the long term. Hence, for several decades, Australia has wisely cultivated close relations with ASEAN and tried to swim in the same direction. I experienced this personally in the mid-1990s when I served as the permanent secretary of the Singapore Foreign Ministry. At that time, we were working on the idea of a community of twelve, including the ten ASEAN countries and Australia and New Zealand. This would have brought Australia closer to South-East Asia, providing a gentle geopolitical buffer for Australia. Since then, Australia and ASEAN have drifted further apart in their management of geopolitical challenges. While most ASEAN countries have generally improved their relations with China, Australia’s ties with China, despite recent improvements, remain fraught with tension.

AUKUS isn’t designed to protect Australia today. It is designed to protect Australia in the middle of this century. And what will the world look like in 2050? In one possible scenario, the US could still be the number one power in the world, with the strongest military capability in East Asia. If this happens, Australia will be well-protected. In a second scenario, which seems more likely, China will emerge as the leading economic power in the world, with the strongest military capability in East Asia, and the US will reduce its foreign entanglements and diminish its presence in East Asia.

This is the fundamental problem with AUKUS. For $368 billion, Australia will be more secure in a favourable world in which the United States is still number one. Yet, for the same amount of money, Australia will feel less secure in a world in which China emerges as number one. China need not project its power militarily. Its political and economic influence will be enormous. In symbolic terms, Australia could well become like Cuba: a fiercely independent country that refuses to bend to the will of the dominant regional power but is politically isolated from most of its neighbours. The ASEAN states have carefully tried to maintain good ties with both the United States and China. But the approach taken by ASEAN states doesn’t mean they are destined to kowtow to Beijing. For example, they have stood firm on their draft of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. At the same time, they have been enhancing their economic ties with China and working to develop a mutually beneficial relationship.

It’s unlikely that Australia will only have extreme choices, such as becoming an Israel or Cuba in East Asia. Fortunately, Australia is well integrated into the region’s economy. It has wisely joined all the major regional trading arrangements, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yet, if Australia continues to swim in a different geopolitical direction from others in the region, it will be perceived to be drifting away from its neighbourhood and will become psychologically isolated.

What’s truly shocking about Australia is that its knowledge and understanding of its immediate neighbourhood is remarkably poor. Australia has no idea what a powerful partner ASEAN could be. Many in Canberra, for example, celebrate Australia’s current closeness with Japan in the Quad. Japan’s economy was eight times bigger than ASEAN’s in 2000. However, it’s now only 1.5 times bigger. By 2030, ASEAN’s economy will be bigger than Japan’s.

By working with AUKUS partners, such as the UK, or with Japan, Australia is betting on the past. It’s certain that the future will be different. The time has come for Australia to make cold and rational calculations on how to adapt to this Asian century, which will bear no resemblance to the American century. AUKUS is a walk back to the past, not the future.


First published in AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN AFFAIRS April 13, 2023

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