HONG KONG — France isn’t the only country upset about a new security pact between the U.S., U.K. and Australia: Some Southeast Asian nations are also worried the partnership could provoke China and 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 riven by maritime territorial disputes. Since then, two key members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) — Indonesia and Malaysia — have voiced similar concerns.
That wariness in Asean is significant, 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 work with the 10-nation bloc of Southeast Asian nations. Indonesia and Malaysia both have had run-ins with Chinese ships in 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, relying on U.S. firepower to keep Beijing from establishing a regional hegemony even as they become more dependent on China for economic growth. AUKUS risks altering that equation, raising the odds of a U.S.-China confrontation that could have economic and national security consequences.
“To prevent the outcome of Chinese regional hegemony, it is necessary for countries to take diplomatic and military actions, which will inevitably lead to greater tensions and military confrontation,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “Southeast Asian countries may have to choose — which is the greater threat?”
As U.S.-China relations unraveled in recent years, nations in the Indo-Pacific have found it increasingly difficult to navigate between the two 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 such as Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, may find it “less tenable” to have security ties with the U.S. and also manage relations with Beijing, according to Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat in China who is now director of the Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program.
“There is a significant risk that the AUKUS announcement will add instability to the region,” Kassam said. “Australia is betting that increasing capability and deterrence is going to secure a regional order favorable to its interests, but cannot discount the possibility of an arms race or alienating partners in the region.”
At Sydney Airport on Monday, Morrison said he was looking “to create a more secure and more stable world” before heading to Washington for talks with U.S. President Joe Biden. He’ll also attend the first face-to-face leaders’ meeting at the White House of the Quad security partnership, which also includes Japan and India, and meet with the leaders of the European Commission and European Council.
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” and that the new pact “will allow us to better share technology and capability.”