Australias nuclear submarines and AUKUS: The view from Jakarta – Brookings Institution

Last Thursdays announcement of Australias plans to pursue nuclear-powered submarines and the launch of AUKUS a new security grouping between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States aimed at promoting information and technology sharing as well as greater defense industry cooperation will be serious considerations for Canberras neighbors and key strategic partners, particularly Indonesia. Despite the periodic disruptions, Australia-Indonesia ties have continued to deepen. Both sets of foreign and defense ministers met in Jakarta on September 9 for the seventh 2+2 meeting, upgrading existing bilateral agreements, announcing new initiatives, and pledging to uphold regional order. In light of this seemingly positive trajectory, how are these developments being viewed in Jakarta?

Starting with the submarines, one of Jakartas major concerns will be the impact on the regions military balance. Not only will Australian nuclear-powered submarines be able to undertake long-endurance, high-speed, stealth operations, but they could be equipped with upgraded missile systems. The Indonesian government issued a statement on Friday saying that it was viewing the submarine decision cautiously and was deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.

To be clear, the long-range operations that Australia is likely to pursue wont be in the seas directly to its north. And while strategic trust and communication have improved in recent years, suspicions arising from Australias involvement in East Timors independence ballot and revelations of Australian spying remain. These open the door for hawkish figures in Jakarta to call for more muscular military capabilities in light of a potentially threatening southern neighbor. As Evan Laksmana flagged on Twitter, questions will be asked about whether Australia will take its new subs further down the nuclear road, going quickly from nuclear-propelled to nuclear-armed.

Also of concern to Indonesia is how Australias enhanced ability to conduct long-range operations, particularly alongside the U.S. and other Indo-Pacific partners, will factor into Beijings strategic calculus. The Indonesian governments statement reiterated Foreign Minister Retno Marsudis declaration after the recent 2+2 joint press conference that both Australia and Indonesia were committed to be a part of an effort to maintain peace and stability in the region.

Canberras decision to power up its maritime capability, in addition to the assets of other allies and partners, increases the costs for China to engage in conflict. However, this could equally provoke China into developing more sophisticated anti-submarine options and expanding its operating areas, both of which would generate anxiety not just in Jakarta but in other Southeast Asian capitals.

Raising the costs for major Indo-Pacific powers of going to war is in Indonesias interests, but not if that means China has greater maritime capabilities which threaten Indonesia or are used in grey-zone operations. Strengthening the Indonesian archipelago against maritime incursions has been a particular concern for President Joko Widodos administration, with Chinese fishing fleets accompanied by coast guard and other vessels flagrantly operating in Indonesias exclusive economic zone.

The threat of the Chinese navy has remained over the horizon. Jakarta has watched Beijing use not just white but grey hulls against the Philippines and Vietnam. While Indonesia has been slowly modernizing its military, particularly its navy and air force, the government would prefer to focus on internal matters like post-COVID-19 economic recovery and infrastructure upgrades.

Looking more broadly at the launch of AUKUS, from Indonesias vantage point it is a sign of greater Australian alignment not just with the U.S.s strategic interests but with its identity. AUKUS is a pact described by the White House as binding Australia decisivelyto the United States and Great Britain for generations. This coalition, as John Blaxland wrote, puts more eggs in that basket, sending an even clearer signal that Canberra is investing in a strategic destiny tied to Washington.

The optics of AUKUS contrast with Canberras desire to expand its regional outreach. The governments 2020 defense strategic update clearly states an intent to deepen Australias alliance with the U.S.. But it also says Australia will prioritise [its] engagement and defence relationships with partners whose active roles in the region will be vital to regional security and stability, including Japan, India and Indonesia. Australias increasing appetite for greater Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) engagement as well as for trilateral groupings with India and Indonesia and with India and France (possibly awkward under a cooling-off period) suggested a posture leaning towards regional enmeshment and away from American dependence.

Despite concerns in Jakarta about appearing to contain China, the Quads inclusion of Japan and India render it a more credible grouping of Indo-Pacific states with, crucially, both Western and Asian representation. In some ways, AUKUS could become a necessary complement to regional strategic bonds like the Quad and the U.S.s bilateral alliances.

If optics matter, history does too. Certainly the U.K. has interests in the Indo-Pacific and is playing a more active role, particularly in the South China Sea. However, AUKUS feels like a throwback to the colonial era, when Great Britain held strong interests in the region via its colonies in South and Southeast Asia. There are benefits in keeping the U.K. engaged in the Indo-Pacific beyond the Five Power Defence Arrangements, yet from an Indonesian point of view, AUKUS risks entrenching even further a Western-dominated narrative about regional order, sidelining Asian states, especially Indonesia.

Since U.S. President Joe Biden took office, Indonesia hasnt received any official visits by high-level American officials, despite Vice President Kamala Harris traveling to Singapore and Vietnam in August and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visiting Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in July. While Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman dropped by Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand in May and June, the Jakarta Posts editorial team expressed disappointment in the two successive snubs. An unsocialized announcement that potentially heightens a sense of military competition in the region is certainly not going to ease these concerns of dismissive exclusion. In this Western-led vision of the Indo-Pacific, AUKUS unequivocally signals which relationships really matter for Australia.

While its early days for AUKUS, the pact will bring a number of key technological benefits for Australia in cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing, among others. And there is comfort in that.

However, its worth remembering that what helps some in Canberra sleep better may keep others in the region up at night.

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Australias nuclear submarines and AUKUS: The view from Jakarta - Brookings Institution

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