Malaysia warns AUKUS pact will spark nuclear arms race in Indo-Pacific

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob fears the new three-way defence alliance between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom will trigger a nuclear arms race in the contested Indo-Pacific.

On Saturday, Malaysia joined Indonesia in raising alarm bells about the military build-up in the region and the impact that the AUKUS pact, which includes Australia acquiring nuclear-propelled submarines, could have on regional stability.

Ismail spoke to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday before on Saturday expressing concern over the establishment of AUKUS to counter a rising China, saying it would be a “catalyst for a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region”.

“At the same time, it will provoke other powers to act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea,” his statement said. “As a country within ASEAN, Malaysia holds the principle of maintaining ASEAN as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality.”

Like Indonesia, Malaysia does not want to be forced to choose between the US-backed Western alliance and China. There is distrust with Bejing on matters of sovereignty and the South China Sea, where Malaysia is a rival claimant to China. The latest minor flare-up occurred in June when the Malaysian Air Force scrambled fighter jets after detecting an intrusion into their airspace by Chinese transport planes.

It was only on Friday that Malaysian Foreign Affairs Minister Saifuddin Abdullah received Chinese ambassador Ouyang Yujing, where they discussed the “future expansion of bilateral co-operation”, according to the foreign ministry.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob spoke to Scott Morrison on the phone on Friday.
Ismail Sabri Yaakob spoke to Scott Morrison on the phone on Friday.CREDIT:BLOOMBERG

Ismail, who only became Prime Minister last month after the forced resignation of Muhyiddin Yassin, on Saturday stressed the importance of “respecting and adhering to Malaysia’s existing stance and approach to nuclear-powered submarines operating in Malaysian waters” – including under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Agreement.

“In addition, the two leaders also reached an agreement in renewing their mutual commitment to maintain international peace and security, especially in the Indo-Pacific region,” the statement said of the phone call between Morrison and Ismail.

“The Prime Minister of Malaysia urged all parties to avoid any provocation and arms competition in the region,” the statement said.

Malaysia’s reaction comes as analysts warn Australia’s plan to secure eight nuclear-powered submarines will provoke wider concern across south-east Asia.

The AUKUS military pact would also unsettle the region because it could potentially sideline the 10-nation ASEAN grouping in an increasingly heated diplomatic environment, analysts said.

Indonesian politics professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar.
Indonesian politics professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar.CREDIT:SEAN DAVEY

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a politics professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said there were concerns in Jakarta – reflected in a foreign ministry statement of “deep concern” about a potential arms race in the region – about the purchase.

But Fortuna Anwar, who worked for former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also said that “China understands strength, so you need to set clear boundaries”.

“The whole world wants to trade with China, we cannot simply isolate China, but at the same time the word has to show the limits of what China can do,” she said.

Regional governments have been further unsettled by China’s formal application late on Thursday to join the Asia-Pacific trade pact that was formed in part as a counter-weight to Beijing’s dominance in the region.

China submitted its formal application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership on the same day it condemned Australia and the United States for forming the AUKUS grouping with Britain.

The application underlines the increasingly complicated geopolitical situation in Asia, where China is the dominant economy and main trading partner for many. Australia, Singapore, New Zealand and Japan are CPTPP members and close allies of the US, but along with China they’re also members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which was successfully negotiated last year.

Fortuna Anwar said ASEAN was not the forum in which great power rivalry could be restrained. “That’s asking too much of ASEAN, what ASEAN can do is provide for dialogue and ensure transparency exists.”

Aaron Connelly, an analyst at Singapore’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the submarine purchase was of less concern – at least in some regional capitals – compared to fears that “ASEAN centrality is fading away [and] people are sceptical that ASEAN is up to challenge of the time”.

“ASEAN governments are acutely aware of that and are worried that external powers are creating new architecture that doesn’t include them like the Quad and potentially AUKUS too,” he said.

As Australia moves ever closer to the US under the AUKUS deal, Connelly thinks other nations in the region “will be less likely to side with Australia on specific issues because Australia has done this”.

John Blaxland, a professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Australian National University, said Indonesia had for decades pursued an “aktif bebas”, or free and independent foreign policy.

“It’s never going to side with a partisan international alliance, so of course they will be pushing back,” he said.

“They’re also going to be miffed because they were not consulted, just like on the Marines based in Darwin [announced a decade ago]. Despite that they won’t have a real problem, it’s just not in their interests or instincts to side with us.

“[Indonesian President] Jokowi, [Foreign Minister] Retno, [Defence Minister] Prabowo get this, they’re also miffed at what China is doing. They could be domestically wedged by their opponents so no one wants to say it publicly – this is classic south-east Asian behaviour. But like us, they have to balance economic interests and security concerns.”

By : Chris Barrett and James Massola – BRISBANE TIMES

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