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Australia seeks to calm ASEAN nerves over AUKUS, nuclear weapons

Ambassador vows pact won't affect bloc's 'centrality' in regional architecture

A U.S. nuclear-powered submarine: A pact that will hand Australia the technology for such vessels has raised concerns in Southeast Asia.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Australia is striving to ease concerns in Southeast Asia about its new AUKUS coalition with the U.S. and U.K., which will help Canberra acquire nuclear submarines.

Will Nankervis, Australia's ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, pledged that his country "will not seek nuclear weapons" nor establish a civil nuclear capability in a statement issued on Monday. The release, titled "Australia's steadfast commitment to ASEAN centrality," also promises that AUKUS will not change the Indo-Pacific security architecture led by the Southeast Asian bloc -- another worry in some ASEAN capitals.

The statement came after core ASEAN members Indonesia and Malaysia expressed alarm over potential nuclearization in the region. The Philippines has been more positive, highlighting gaps within the bloc itself over how to deal with a rising China.

Indonesia's Foreign Ministry has said it is "deeply concerned" over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region, stressing the importance of "Australia's commitment to continue meeting all of its nuclear nonproliferation obligations."

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, meanwhile, "expressed concern over the AUKUS cooperation, which will catalyze the nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region" during a call with Australian counterpart Scott Morrison on Friday.

"At the same time, it will provoke other powers to act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea," the Malaysian leader added according to a statement released by his government, referring to a maritime arena where China and several Southeast Asian governments have overlapping claims.

The AUKUS partnership announced last Thursday by Morrison, U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson covers cooperation on artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technologies, and undersea capabilities -- apparently aimed at countering China's rising power in the Indo-Pacific region.

"In general, ASEAN would not be happy with this development, as it implies external intervention in the region without prior consultation" with the bloc, said Yongwook Ryu, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

But Ryu noted that "some regional countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines might be quietly happy to see greater involvement of the three Western countries, as they can help counter China's aggression and coercive diplomacy in the region."

Indeed, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, whose country has its own dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea, said in a statement that Manila "welcomes Australia's decision to establish an enhanced trilateral security partnership with the United States primarily and the United Kingdom."

The statement, dated Sunday and released on Tuesday, went on to argue that "the enhancement of a near-abroad ally's ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it."

Still, the AUKUS announcement raised eyebrows among other Western allies too, especially France, which recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the U.S. because the pact effectively scraps a French contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia.

For ASEAN, which forms the heart of the Indo-Pacific, the establishment of a new alliance by external powers touches a nerve, as it could undermine the bloc's relevance in the regional security landscape.

For years, ASEAN has sought to maintain "centrality" in that landscape. It has launched platforms such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), which involves eight key partners including the U.S., China, Japan and India. It also holds the ASEAN Regional Forum -- a rare international dialogue in which North Korea regularly participates -- and has released its own Indo-Pacific strategy, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

But even before AUKUS, outside powers were raising their profiles. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) -- which comprises Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. -- has emerged as another key platform for regional security cooperation.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Morrison last week that he hoped AUKUS would "contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region" and "complement the regional architecture," according to a Foreign Ministry account of their phone call.

Nankervis' statement seeks to put Southeast Asian minds at ease. The new agreement "does not change Australia's commitment to ASEAN nor our ongoing support for the ASEAN-led regional architecture," he promised. He went on to say that Australia is committed to continuing to foster a peaceful, secure region "with ASEAN at its center" and to "complementing and strengthening the existing ASEAN-led architecture."

Contrary to the concerns raised, the ambassador argued that Australia's participation in the grouping "will strengthen our ability to work with regional partners in support of regional stability and security, within the rules-based framework on which our collective prosperity is built."

Ryu said Nankervis' comments were "better than no such placating statement" but that the "damage has already been done."

Either way, the professor stressed that Australia's aim through AUKUS should be "to uphold common rules and norms, rather than target China."

"Of course, if China breaches common rules and norms, AUKUS should stand united and uphold them, but it must not evolve to become an anti-China military bloc," he said. "If the latter happens, many ASEAN countries would find AUKUS hard to accept and contradictory to ASEAN's own vision of regional order."

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