China’s Neighbors Fear Australia’s Nuclear Sub-Deal Disrupting Region | national

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HONG KONG – France is not the only country unhappy with a new security pact between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia: some countries in Southeast Asia also fear that the partnership will provokes China and does not spur a regional arms race.

The so-called AUKUS partnership, which will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, prompted China last week to warn of an arms race in a region torn by maritime territorial disputes. Since then, two key members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Indonesia and Malaysia – have expressed similar concerns.

This mistrust in ASEAN is significant, especially since President Joe Biden and Australian leader Scott Morrison last week presented the agreement as necessary for Indo-Pacific stability and mentioned their desire to work with the bloc. from 10 Southeast Asian nations. Indonesia and Malaysia have both had run-ins with Chinese ships in the South China Sea, a large area where Beijing has claimed vast oil and fishing resources.

ASEAN has sought to balance ties between the world’s largest economies, relying on US firepower to prevent Beijing from establishing regional hegemony even as it becomes more dependent on China. for economic growth. AUKUS risks changing this equation, increasing the chances of a US-China confrontation that could have consequences for the economy and national security.

“To prevent the outcome of Chinese regional hegemony, it is necessary for countries to take diplomatic and military measures, which will inevitably lead to greater tensions and military confrontation,” said Bonnie Glaser, program director. Asia to the German Marshall Fund of the United States “The countries of Southeast Asia may have to choose – what is the greatest threat? “

As US-China relations have collapsed in recent years, Indo-Pacific countries are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate between the two superpowers. The Trump administration has sought to force countries to avoid using Huawei Technologies Co. equipment in 5G networks, while China has used trade retaliation – primarily against Australia – to warn countries against the contestation of its interests.

Countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, might find it “less tenable” to have security ties with the United States and also to manage relations with Beijing, according to Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat in China who is now director of the public opinion and foreign policy program at the Lowy Institute.

“There is a significant risk that the AUKUS announcement will add instability to the region,” Kassam said. “Australia is betting that increased capabilities and deterrence will ensure a regional order favorable to its interests, but cannot rule out the possibility of an arms race or alienating partners in the region. “

On Monday at Sydney Airport, Morrison said he was looking to “create a more secure and stable world” before heading to Washington for talks with US President Joe Biden. He will also attend the first face-to-face meeting of leaders at the White House of the Quad Security Partnership, which also includes Japan and India, and meet with leaders of the European Commission and the European Council.

While Morrison has spent most of the last few days seeking to appease France, Australia’s ambassador to ASEAN issued a lengthy statement claiming that the country’s support for Southeast Asian centrality “remains more constant than ever” and that the new pact “will allow us to better share technology and capacity.

Indonesia was the first country in the region to criticize the deal, saying it was “deeply concerned about the continuing arms race and the projection of power in the region.” Morrison later, after arriving in New York, said he spoke to Indonesian President Joko Widodo to “reassure him, especially on non-proliferation issues” and further explain the arrangements around AUKUS.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has said he fears AUKUS will push other powers to act more aggressively, especially in the South China Sea, while Singapore has simply said it hopes the agreement “would contribute constructively to peace and stability in the region and complement the regional architecture.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told his Australian counterpart in a phone call that they recognize Canberra’s right to acquire the new submarines while stressing that Manila wants good defense relations. ” with all the countries of the region “.

North Korea also intervened, warning AUKUS to start a “nuclear arms race” despite its own pursuit of atomic weapons which has threatened stability in the region for years.

Rory Medcalf, a former Australian diplomat who wrote the book “Indo-Pacific Empire”, said he suspected the deal was “something Asean can live with”.

“I think we will find that major players like Japan, India and South Korea all welcome AUKUS,” said Medcalf, professor at the Australian National University. “Hypocritical criticism of China and North Korea, as well as foreseeable concerns about the stability of Indonesia and Malaysia – this does not amount to a regional backlash. “

India will have to take into account another navy that operates nuclear powered submarines in the Indian Ocean and “this would enhance the Quad’s denial of sea capabilities,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, retired commodore and honorary member of the National Maritime. Foundation. The Quad, whose priority is to counter China’s growing military might, will meet in Washington on Friday.

“There is however probably a division of responsibilities, for India this would mean that the areas from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca would become the primary area of ​​responsibility while the vast waters of the southern Indian Ocean can be examined by others, ”Bhaskar added.

The more negative statements from Southeast Asian countries could be a way to “express their concern about AUKUS” to underscore an independent foreign policy while also seeking to benefit from security cooperation with Australia and the West, said Shahriman Lockman, senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia. He said senior Malaysian officials told him that a stronger Australian navy would benefit the country.

According to Evan Laksmana, a Jakarta-based senior researcher at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Indonesia’s concern about AUKUS represents broader concerns about the politics of the great powers.

“The more these types of movements occur in the region that sort of sideline ASEAN or Indonesia, the more the impression that Indonesia is a strategic spectator is somehow reinforced,” he said. “And it’s not a good feeling to have, but we also know that we can’t offer anything else.”

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