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France upset about a new security pact between US, UK, and Australia

France isn’t the only country upset about a new security pact between the US, UK, and Australia: Some Southeast Asian nations also are worried the partnership could provoke China and spur a regional race.

The so-called AUKUS partnership, which can help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, prompted China last week to warn of an arms race during a region riven by maritime territorial disputes. Since then, two key members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — Indonesia and Malaysia — have voiced similar concerns.

That wariness in Asean is critical, particularly as both President Joe Biden and Australian leader Scott Morrison last week touted the arrangement as necessary for Indo-Pacific stability and mentioned a desire to figure with the 10-nation bloc of Southeast Asian nations. Indonesia and Malaysia both have had run-ins with Chinese ships within the South China Sea, an expansive area where Beijing has made vast claims to hydrocarbon and fishing resources.

ASEAN has sought to balance ties between the world’s biggest economies, counting on US firepower to stay Beijing from establishing a regional hegemony whilst they become more dependent on China for economic process. AUKUS risks altering that equation, raising the chances of a US-China confrontation that would have economic and national security consequences.

“To prevent the result of Chinese regional hegemony, it’s necessary for countries to require diplomatic and military actions, which can inevitably cause greater tensions and military confrontation,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the US. “Southeast Asian countries may need to choose — which is that the greater threat?”

Less tenable
As US-China relations unraveled in recent years, nations within the Indo-Pacific have found it increasingly difficult to navigate between the 2 superpowers. The Trump administration sought to force countries to avoid using Huawei Technologies Co’s equipment in 5G networks, while China has used trade reprisals — most prominently against Australia — to warn nations against challenging its interests.

Countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and therefore the Philippines, especially , may find it “less tenable” to possess security ties with the US and also manage relations with Beijing, consistent with Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat in China who is now director of the Lowy Institute’s popular opinion and policy programme.

“There may be a significant risk that the AUKUS announcement will add instability to the region,” Kassam said. “Australia is betting that increasing capability and deterrence goes to secure a regional order favourable to its interests, but cannot discount the likelihood of an race or alienating partners within the region.”

At Sydney Airport on Monday, Morrison said he was looking “to create a safer and more stable world” before heading to Washington for talks with US President Joe Biden. He’ll also attend the primary face-to-face leaders’ meeting at the White House of the Quad security partnership, which also includes Japan and India.

While Morrison has spent most of the past few days seeking to placate France, Australia’s ambassador to Asean released a lengthy statement saying the country’s support for Southeast Asia’s centrality “remains as steadfast as ever”.

AUKUS “will allow us to raised share technology and capability,” the statement said. “It isn’t a defence alliance or pact.”

Indonesia was the primary country within the region to criticise the arrangement, saying it had been “deeply concerned over the continuing race and power projection within the region”. Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob later said he was worried AUKUS could provoke other powers to act more aggressively, especially within the South China Sea.

Singapore merely said it hoped the deal “would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture,” while Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told his Australian counterpart in call that they acknowledged Canberra’s right to accumulate the new subs while stressing Manila wanted good defence relations “with all countries within the region.”

North Korea also chimed in, warning AUKUS would trigger a “nuclear arms race” despite its own pursuit of atomic weapons that has threatened stability within the region for years.

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

“I think we’ll find that major players like Japan, India and South Korea are all welcoming of AUKUS,” said Medcalf, a professor at Australian National University. “Hypocritical criticism from China and North Korea plus predictable concerns about stability from Indonesia and Malaysia — this doesn’t add up to a regional backlash.”

Expressing concern
India will need to take under consideration another navy that operates nuclear-powered submarines within the Indian Ocean and “this would enhance the sea-denial capabilities of the Quad,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, a retired commodore and honorary fellow with the National Maritime Foundation. The Quad, which prioritises countering China’s growing military power, will meet in Washington this Friday.

“There is, however, likely to be a division of responsibility, for India it might mean that areas from Persian Gulf to Malacca Straits would become the first area of responsibility whereas the vast waters of the south Indian Ocean are often checked out by others,” Bhaskar added.

The more negative statements from Southeast Asian nations might be how of “expressing concern about AUKUS” to underscore an independent policy while also seeking to profit from security cooperation with Australia and therefore the West, said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia. He said senior Malaysian officials have told him a stronger Australian navy would benefit the country.

Indonesia’s concern over AUKUS represents broader worries about great-power politics that has left it feeling powerless, consistent with Evan Laksmana, a Jakarta-based senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“The more these sorts of moves happen within the region that kind of sidelines Asean or sidelines Indonesia, the more that impression of Indonesia being a strategic spectator is kind of reinforced,” he said. “And that’s not a pleasant feeling to possess , but we also know we can’t offer anything .”

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