The top diplomats of Indonesia and Malaysia together amplified their nations’ concerns Monday about Australia’s plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, warning this could draw other powers into disputes over the South China Sea and provoke a regional arms race.
Under the so-called AUKUS pact signed last month the United Kingdom and the United States will provide Australia with technology needed to build such submarines.
After holding bilateral talks in Jakarta on Monday, the Malaysian and Indonesian foreign ministers reiterated concerns about the pact that they had articulated in recent weeks.
“Although the country [Australia] stated that these are nuclear-powered submarines and not nuclear-armed ones, both our governments expressed concern and disturbance,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told a joint news conference after meeting with his host and Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi.
“This could attract the involvement of more powers in the ASEAN region and the South China Sea,” he said.
Retno said Indonesia and Malaysia were committed to maintaining peace and stability in the region.
“Both of us don’t want the current dynamics to lead to tensions caused by an arms race and power projection,” she told reporters. “Such a situation will not benefit anyone.”
The AUKUS pact has, however, led to a regional schism.
At least two other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are backing AUKUS. The Philippines and Singapore say it will help restore a regional “imbalance” – a clear reference to China’s growing military might – and contribute to stability.
In early October, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told parliament that both Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta believed that strong military cooperation among ASEAN members would ensure greater security in Southeast Asia.
Security analysts say AUKUS aims to help Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines as well as deter China’s aggressive military posturing in the contested South China Sea. Beijing, which has sweeping claims in the strategic waterway, has denounced the pact.
Malaysia, a claimant to waters in the South China Sea, meanwhile, is also a member of the Five Powers Defense Arrangement (FPDA) – along with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.
As Saifuddin and Retno were warning about the potential negative consequences of AUKUS, Malaysia, Australia, the U.K. and the other members of FPDA were marking that pact’s 50th anniversary with a large-scale aerial and naval display in Singapore, according to news reports.
During their news conference on Monday, the Indonesian and Malaysian foreign ministers also talked about a decision made by ASEAN’s top diplomats last week not to invite Myanmar’s junta chief, Min Aung Hlaing, to the regional bloc’s summit later this month.
The decision, based on the Burmese military’s failure to take steps to restore democracy after it ousted a civilian government in a coup on Feb. 1, was the right thing to do, Retno said.
“Our efforts as a family have not been met with a good response from the Myanmar military,” Retno said during the press conference, referring to the 10-member regional bloc.
“This decision will not get in the way of ASEAN’s commitment to helping Myanmar, including sending humanitarian aid.”
On Saturday, ASEAN chair Brunei said that the bloc would invite a “non-political representative” from Myanmar to its summit, scheduled for Oct. 26-28.
“[S]ome ASEAN member states recommended that ASEAN give space to Myanmar to restore its internal affairs and return to normalcy in accordance with the will of the people of Myanmar,” Bruneian Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof said in a statement.
In response, the Burmese junta issued a statement the same day alleging that the decision to exclude Min Aung Hlaing from the summit was taken without all members’ agreement – ASEAN decides on issues and actions based on consensus.
“Myanmar is extremely disappointed and strongly objected [to] the outcomes of the emergency foreign ministers’ meeting as the discussions and decision on Myanmar’s representation issue was done without consensus and was against the objectives of ASEAN, the ASEAN charter and its principles,” the junta said.
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