On September 15, 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced the formation of a technology-sharing accord called AUKUS. The accord underscores the three countries’ commitment to deepen diplomatic, security, and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. The agreement’s first announced goal is to create a fleet of at least eight Australian Royal Navy (RAN) submarines based either on the U.S. Navy’s Virginia class or the Royal Navy’s (RN’s) Astute Class attack submarines, to be developed with technology from some combination of the two countries’ defense companies. It will take a decade before any of these new nuclear- powered attack submarines will be constructed and commissioned in Australia. Thus, there is speculation that Australia might lease one or two American Virginia class submarines to train its crews and enable Canberra to project Australian naval power to the waters off Taiwan and even far north in the East China Sea.

This consequently increases expectations that Australian naval power, based on its fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines, will be enabled to side with the U.S. Navy in any future conflict with the People’s Liberation Army–Navy (PLAN) within the first-island-chain. Canberra can also support Washington and Tokyo in defending the Senkaku Islands against Beijing. These nuclear-powered attack submarines will not be equipped with nuclear armed ballistic missiles. Nevertheless, they could stalk and hunt the PLAN’s surface combatants and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) in the South and East China Seas, and launch cruise missiles against China’s coastal cities while stationed east of the Philippines. A Singapore-based analyst notes, “Nuclear submarines in the hand of American allies will not only hem PLAN within the first-island-chain but it will also neutralize the asymmetric advantage China has gained by developing and deploying ship-killing missiles such as DF-21 and DF-26.”

Philippine foreign affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin welcomed the new security arrangement, claiming that it will help maintain peace and stability in Southeast Asia. He saw AUKUS as a counter-balance against China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region, specifically in the South China Sea where it claims nearly 85 percent of disputed waters under the so-called nine-dash line. In his September 19 statement, Secretary Locsin spelled out the reasons behind the Philippines’ support for this trilateral security partnership: a) there is currently a power imbalance in Southeast Asia because of China’s growing power and influence in the region; b) the ASEAN states do not possess the military capabilities to maintain the balance of power in the region; while the main balancer, the United States, is separated from Southeast Asia by the Pacific Ocean; and c) Australia with its nuclear-powered attack submarines will have the naval capability to respond in time and will be able to maintain the Southeast Asian balance of power. Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana supported Secretary Locsin’s position by stating that Australia, like the Philippines, has the right to improve its submarine defense capability.

From Appeasement to Balancing

The Philippines’ endorsement of AUKUS went head on against the positions of two ASEAN-member states. Malaysia expressed its concern that this security grouping could be a catalyst for a Southeast Asian nuclear arms race and might provoke some countries to react aggressively, especially in the South China Sea. Initially,  the Indonesian foreign ministry echoed the same sentiment as it cautiously took note of AUKUS at the same time emphasizing that it was deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in Southeast Asia. In  November 22, 2021, Indonesian Defense Minister Phabowo Subianto expressed a more pragmatic view as he said that Indonesia understands the reason behind the formation of this trilateral security group.    Nevertheless,  he pointed out that Indonesia’s official position is that Southeast Asia should be nuclear free and there is still a regional fear that AUKUS might spark an arms race.  Interestingly, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte aired similar concern as he expressed his misgiving that that trilateral accord could trigger a regional nuclear arms race.

His position challenges his foreign secretary’s earlier statement that welcomed AUKUS as it would strengthen Australia’s power projection capability to maintain the regional balance of power. This reflects the cleavage within the Duterte administration over the South China Sea issue. There are those who still believe that the Philippines should continue to promote bilateral economic and diplomatic cooperation with China versus those who think that it is time to counter Beijing’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea through international law and by rebuilding the Philippines’ alliance with the United States and security partnerships with middle powers like Japan, Australia, and South Korea. After a September 28 cabinet meeting, the foreign affairs and national defense secretaries’ support for AUKUS stood firm despite President Duterte’s stated concern that it could lead to a regional nuclear arms race. This indicates the growing dominance of the Philippine national security community within the cabinet as it advocates support for the U.S. alliance system as a means of balancing China’s expansionist designs in the South China Sea.

Enhancing Ties with the AUKUS Members

During his virtual talk at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, Secretary Locsin reiterated the Philippines’ support for AUKUS, declaring that Australia should be part of ASEAN as a geographical grouping for regional defense and regional stability. According to him, “what rounds out the circle of security (in Southeast Asia) is the anchor of Australia right underneath.” The following day, during the virtual ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting, a senior Filipino diplomat restated her boss’s position that “the Philippines sees value in the enhancement of a neighbor’s capability to project power in Southeast Asia” as it will “restore and keep the balance of power, rather than destabilize.”

The best expression of the Philippines’ support for AUKUS was the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) invitation to the United Kingdom to participate as an observer in the full-scale 2022 Philippine-U.S. annual Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) Exercise. According to AFP chairman of the Joint-Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General Jose Faustino Jr, the United Kingdom will likely send a small contingent to observe U.S., Philippine, and Australian troops conducting joint exercises in the Philippines. The presence of UK troops in the 2022 military drill will be the first concrete act of military cooperation between all members of AUKUS and a Southeast Asian state. A stronger  Philippine statement of support for AUKUS was expressed by no less than President Duterte himself during the 9th U.S.-ASEAN Summit on October 27, 2021. In his speech, he declared that AUKUS will promote peace and stability in Southeast Asia and will ensure ASEAN’s  centrality in the evolving regional security architecture. He, however, pointed out that this new regional security grouping must complement and not complicate the region association’s working method.  His statement reflected that he has accepted the foreign and defense department’s positive view on this trilateral security partnership in promoting peace and stability in Southeast Asia.

About Renato Cruz de Castro

Renato Cruz De Castro is a distinguished university professor in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and holds the Dr. Aurelio Calderon Chair in Philippines-American Relation. As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Albert Del Rosario Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ADRI), he writes monthly opinion columns for the Philippine Star and Business World.