May 10, 2023
SINGAPORE – There needs to be more attention on AUKUS Pillar II, which encompasses advanced capabilities such as cyber, amid the extensive focus on Pillar I. This focus centers on how this trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States would enhance Australia’s deterrence capabilities against China and how countries in the region view it as preserving or undermining regional peace and stability.
Understandably, the maritime geography of the Asia-Pacific drives countries to focus on the implications of nuclear-powered submarines on the regional balance of power.
In Southeast Asia particularly, Malaysia acknowledged the need for countries to enhance defense capabilities but stressed that the operations of nuclear-powered submarines should respect existing rules such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Indonesia faces a geopolitical conundrum as its policy on the movement of AUKUS submarines through its archipelagic waters would affect its relations with AUKUS countries and international law during a conflict.
Singapore, at the 13th Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee on May 1, stated that nuclear-powered submarines were not new to the region as United States submarines had called at the Changi Naval Base. Singapore also supports AUKUS as long as it contributes to regional security.
Indeed, Pillar I dominates analysis on the strategic direction of AUKUS, and it would likely be in the spotlight if AUKUS is discussed at the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) scheduled for July in Jakarta.
Nonetheless, there should be more attention on the potential implications of AUKUS Pillar II for several reasons.
First, the war in Ukraine demonstrates how proxy wars or conflicts involving major powers can become laboratories for integrating emerging technologies in warfare. Second, emerging technologies are one of the drivers of major power contestation today as they contribute to the redistribution of geopolitical and military power. Third, Australia’s Defense Strategic Review 2023 states that AUKUS Pillar II would enhance the country’s asymmetric capability for defense and strengthen AUKUS partners’ industrial bases.
Looking at the areas of advanced capabilities under AUKUS Pillar II, this pillar could serve as a countervailing move against China’s current lead in dual-use emerging technologies.
For example, better undersea capabilities are crucial to keeping abreast of China’s advances in underwater drone technology and suspected underwater drone activities in Southeast Asia as well as protecting submarine cables that digitally connect Australia to Southeast Asia and the rest of the Asia-Pacific.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has assumed greater importance for the force capabilities of militaries facing changing operational realities and keeping abreast of the “intelligentization” of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Electronic warfare (EW) will be crucial if a maritime conflict happens in the Asia-Pacific, as postulated by the threat of global positioning system (GPS) and communications jamming vessels in the Black Sea near Ukraine and warnings of GPS jamming of aircraft flying over the western Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea.
Cyber would be the overarching area among these advanced capabilities, as the other areas entail using critical communications and operations systems. Furthermore, these systems today rely on digitalization, hence necessitating cyber defense.
Digitalization also begets the question of whether cyber in Pillar II includes a “defend forward” component that seeks to change the behavior of adversaries proactively. Relatedly, Australia’s Defense Strategic Review 2023 states that the Australian Signals Directorate is expanding its cyber capabilities under project REDSPICE, which includes offensive capabilities.
Similar to how some countries have raised concerns about how AUKUS Pillar I risks pushing the region closer to conflict, there could be concerns about how advanced capabilities like cyber, AI and quantum would determine the likelihood or outcomes of a conflict. Besides nuclear-powered submarines, advanced capabilities – when their potential implications become evident – would also bolster the military power of AUKUS as an alliance, to the chagrin of China, and further redefine the regional security architecture.
As AUKUS Pillar II is the next reality that AUKUS partners would pursue and Southeast Asian countries have to live with, it may be time for Australia to shift gears in its engagements with the region.
First, Australia should invest more effort in its strategic communications with Southeast Asian countries to proactively address possible concerns relating to AUKUS Pillar II and elaborate on how it could be a bulwark for regional security. In information operations-speak, this effort is akin to “pre-bunking“, which addresses misconceptions or adversarial narratives before they happen.
Australia could undertake this effort through platforms such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) and bilaterally with each regional country’s political and military leadership. In addition, there may be communication lessons that Australia could glean from its diplomatic campaign to the region on AUKUS Pillar I.
Second, Australia should assuage Southeast Asia that using advanced capabilities in strategic competition with geopolitical rivals would come with guardrails to minimize the risks of spillover effects on the region. For example, there has to be a commitment that undersea capabilities would not negatively impact maritime traffic and submarine cables that Southeast Asian countries rely on for digital trade and communications.
In addition, the use of advanced cyber capabilities should be in accordance with the United Nations’ 11 norms of responsible state behavior in cyberspace, which Australia and ASEAN have agreed to observe.
Third, there should be clarity and strategy on how AUKUS Pillar II could be helpful to the defense capabilities of Southeast Asian countries. One point of clarity is that the research and development of advanced dual-use capabilities such as cyber require collaboration between the defense and commercial sectors.
Therefore, the strategy may lie in the involvement of the commercial sector, which could create cooperative opportunities for sharing lessons on innovation and less-sensitive applications with Southeast Asia. For example, new applications could enhance the security of the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (ADI).
Similar to AUKUS Pillar I, Australia would have its work cut out to explain to Southeast Asia countries that the benefits of advanced capabilities under AUKUS Pillar II outweigh the risks to regional security. Its partners, especially the US, may need more convincing about the merits of this endeavor, especially as it has concerns about technology transfer through third-party countries to its strategic rivals.
Nonetheless, it is in Australia’s interest to push ahead with this endeavor, given its relationship with the region as an ASEAN dialogue partner and close geographical neighbor.
The writer is a research fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). The views expressed are his own.