Fears that the AUKUS alliance could spark an arms race in the Asia-Pacific are nothing more than a “knee-jerk reaction,” according to one defense expert, who said the pact between Australia, the United States, and the UK would help maintain a balance of power in the troubled region.
“Clearly, Australia is keen to dispel misperceptions about AUKUS, but as I’ve noted before, those who believe AUKUS can contribute to regional peace and stability, and those who think otherwise, will likely stick to their guns,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
He told The Epoch Times there are parties who would prefer to “stay ambiguous and obfuscate matters” but noted that it’s more helpful to look “beyond rhetoric” and examine the policy actions of ASEAN governments.
“If Indonesia and Malaysia are so against AUKUS and intend to send a strong signal to Australia, they wouldn’t have continued with their usual slate of defense and security engagements with the latter,” he said. “Indonesia and Australia just concluded their bilateral naval exercise New Horizon last week. And Malaysia just inked an MOU with Australia on cybersecurity cooperation.”
Further, he noted that using the “arms race” label would be “misleading,” saying that only a limited number of nations had the political will and resources to engage in one.
“I won’t even attempt to call that an ‘arms race’ but at best, arms competition,” he said. “We’ve had numerous such similar warnings in the past, so the remarks from Indonesia and Malaysia are nothing new. It seems even an obligatory knee-jerk response to be expected.”
The announcement of the trilateral agreement between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia triggered a mixed response from Asia-Pacific governments. Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines backed the agreement, and North Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia expressed concerns that the new pact could kick off an arms race in the region.
Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein declared that he would seek the views of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership on the pact.
Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the Australian government needs to devote more effort to its relations with Southeast Asian nations.
“We need to get over the Australian view that everything can be done on the smell of an oily rag,” he told AAP on Nov. 8. “We have been way too relaxed about our position in southeast Asia, probably thinking that it is stronger than it really is, and we have been caught flat-footed with the volume of Chinese money.”
Currently, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne is touring the region to assuage concerns and bolster ties within the ASEAN nations.
Lean noted that AUKUS would be a “net positive for regional peace” and could maintain a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
“This allows Southeast Asian countries to focus on economic recovery (from the pandemic) and not have to devote too many resources to defence,” he said, noting that ASEAN alone would be “insufficient” to counteract Beijing’s military build-up.
At the heart of the new AUKUS pact is a pledge from the U.S. and UK governments to assist the Australian government with acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.
The move could significantly influence the power balance in the Indo-Pacific and elevate the potency of Australia’s naval capability, making it one of six nations globally to operate nuclear-powered subs, despite being a non-nuclear power.
The pact also aims to foster increased collaboration across fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, cyber, and undersea capabilities.