Asean, AUKUS and China: Caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea?


Why Asean may think twice before standing with China over Aukus

October 24, 2021published at 11:07 AM
ByLaura Zhou
South China Morning Post

China is lobbying neighbours in Southeast Asia to reject a US-led three-way security pact that will allow Australia to field nuclear-powered submarines, but it may prove a tough task, regional observers said.

During separate phone calls with counterparts in Malaysia and Brunei late last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the new trilateral deal between Australia, the UK and the US posed hidden dangers to peace and stability in the region.

It would escalate nuclear proliferation risks and spark an arms race in the region if Australia were to acquire submarines that could be armed with nuclear missiles, he warned.

Aukus – as the pact is officially known – could also damage Southeast Asia’s efforts to build a nuclear-weapon-free zone and reignite a cold war mentality by stirring up confrontations , Wang said, according to a statement from China’s foreign ministry.

Wang’s remarks, coming two weeks after the surprise Aukus announcement on Sept 15, were widely seen as Beijing’s official response to the new Anglophone defence deal designed to contain China’s influence in the region.

But observers said it would be hard for Beijing to strike a chord among policymakers in Southeast Asia, where positions over the Aukus pact remain divided.

Among the 10 Asean member states, the Philippines and Singapore reacted positively to the deal while Vietnam, the most vocal critic of Chinese claims in the South China Sea, appeared to be cautious.

Malaysia and Indonesia, which had earlier warned against arms races and nuclear proliferation, said on Monday after their foreign ministers met in Jakarta that they were still “worried and concerned” that Aukus might lead to an arms race in Southeast Asia, even though nuclear weapons were not part of the plan.

But William Choong, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the responses from Malaysia and Indonesia were less negative than they appeared to be.

“Malaysia stands to actually gain from Aukus in a sense, because Malaysia is a claimant state in the South China Sea and it has been fighting quite hard on the international law front to challenge China and defend its claims at the United Nations.”

In one of the latest pushes, Hong Xiaoyong, Chinese ambassador to Singapore, denounced Aukus as the product of a resurgent cold war mentality and a reflection of Washington’s “double standards” on nuclear non-proliferation.

“From the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, to the current Aukus, the US has formed more and more ‘small circles’, in which the confrontation is sensed stronger and stronger,” Hong wrote in a signed piece titled “Aukus will not bring prosperity or stability”, in The Straits Times on Thursday.

“The emergence of Aukus, however, casts a shadow over prosperity and stability in the region. Should its existence lead to major power confrontation or even military confrontation, the current regional cooperation framework and Asean centrality would cease to exist,” the ambassador warned.

In fact, Southeast Asian countries worried about China’s military build-up in the region would be keen to welcome the involvement of Aukus, which is largely seen as a bid to balance China’s growing influence in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s extensive claims have been contested by Asean members including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Choong said Asean was “unlikely to swing to either the US or China”, as managing a balance of power remained a priority.

his article was first published in South China Morning Post.


Asean can ward off Aukus’ Cold War tactics: China Daily editorial

Thursday, 21 Oct 2021 1:12 PM MYT

BEIJING (China Daily/Asia News Network): The new tripartite defence alliance, which the United States has formed with the United Kingdom and Australia, and the nuclear-powered submarine cooperation that has been initiated to accompany its launch, will only create instability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Many have joined China in voicing their concerns about the so-called Aukus security pact since it was announced in mid-September.

On Monday (Oct 18), the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia added their voices to those expressing concerns about Australia’s plan to develop nuclear-powered submarines under the Aukus framework and the dangers of the intensifying geopolitical competition in the region.

Indeed, with the US firing up old and new alliances in the Asia-Pacific and militarising the region in its bid to contain and isolate China, the region is in danger of becoming a powder keg awaiting a spark.

South-East Asian countries have maintained sound and mutually beneficial ties with China for decades, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only strengthened this. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) became China’s largest trade partner last year.

Under such circumstances, the Asean member states should be wary of Aukus bearing false gifts.

In light of the recent practices of the US, the Asean members should be prepared for overtures from Aukus on the national level that are aimed at worrying apart the bloc’s unity, since Asean has been reluctant to take sides with the US in the latter’s geopolitical competition with China.


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