Why Asean may think twice before standing with China over Aukus

26-Oct-2021 Intellasia | Asiaone | 5:02 AM Print This 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 September 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’s reactions were in line with its long-standing views on regional security and there may have been “domestic considerations” when defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein suggested he would seek consultations with China over the pact, Choong noted.

“There were domestic considerations because there was also criticism of the deal from the opposition coalition,” he said.

“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.”

Choong was referring to the battle of diplomatic notes to the UN secretary general since 2019, in which Malaysia, later joined by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia as well as the US, Australia, Britain, France, Germany and Japan, submitted their positions to reject China’s claims of historic rights over the South China Sea.

Even Indonesia’s fears about “the continuing arms race and power projection”, as President Joko Widodo told Australian prime minister Scott Morrison over the phone last month, “could refer not only to Aukus but also to the US and China”, Choong added.

Both Malaysia and Indonesia have close security ties with the US, and “that could explain why, instead of going to the US, both Malaysia and Indonesia turned to Australia to protest over Aukus,” said Chen Xiangmiao, an assistant research fellow with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan.

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.

Observers said their different views on Aukus could also complicate Beijing’s efforts to woo the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

China is deeply worried that its strategic balance with the US, which remains delicate in the region, could be upset if Australia was allowed to acquire nuclear-powered submarine technology, setting a precedent for other US allies such as Japan and South Korea.

“In that case, the nuclear balance will be disturbed if more countries follow the path and own nuclear-armed submarines,” Chen said.

But in Southeast Asia, there have been broader concerns that Asean’s centrality, under which the 10-member bloc must be at the core of regional institutions, has been challenged.

“Asean needs to ask why is this has happened over Asean’s head and without Asean knowing,” Nguyen Hung Son, vice-president of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, said during a webinar hosted earlier this month by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia, a Jakarta-based think tank.

“One should ask what is the relevance of the Asean and whether the centrality that Asean and its partners talk about is just lip service or it is something they really attend to,” he said.

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.

“This is about equilibrium,” Choong said, “that’s the positive side of the ledger. But the negative side is that when you have external powers that are projecting power into the region, there’s always a risk of accidental escalation.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the Chinese defence ministry demanded that the US end its military operations in the South China Sea, after the Pentagon last week said one of its nuclear attack submarines had collided with a mystery object in the disputed waters earlier this month.

So far, Asean has moved cautiously on Aukus. It has been more than a month since the deal was established, but the 10-member group has yet to release any official position. Last week, Malaysia’s defence minister Hishammuddin said the bloc was hoping for a clear consensus on Aukus in the Asean leaders’ summit next month.

“On security issues, Asean has been walking a tightrope of sorts, in that it has had to make some very careful decisions. So China’s five-point response is likely to find limited resonance among Asean countries,” Chen in Hainan said, with “five-point response” referring to the opposition to Aukus raised by Foreign minister Wang.

“This is because they have too many issues to take into consideration, from how to avoid division and maintain the bloc’s centrality while avoiding taking sides between China and the US.”

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

And according to Chen, Beijing is likely to continue talks with Asean countries while enhancing its anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

“To Asean countries, China should make clear its position on nuclear non-proliferation, which I think has some room for dialogue,” Chen said.

“Meanwhile, China should make it clear that Southeast Asian countries should not participate in any similar partnerships like Aukus, otherwise it would be seen as taking sides.”



Category: Regional

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