Malaysian Think-Tank: AUKUS could turn Region into Conflict-prone Area

China is now viewing Australia as an enemy.

Australia’s surprise announcement on September 15 to acquire nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the U.S. and the UK did not go down too well with regional and international players.  

Maritime Fairtrade spoke with Tan Sri Ong Tee Keat, Chairman of the independent think-tank Centre for New Inclusive Asia (CNIA) and Malaysia’s former Transport Minister to gather his views on the AUKUS. 

China has denounced Australia’s move and said that Australia “had turned itself into an adversary of China”. France was angered that Australia cancelled a A$90 billion (US$65 billion) contract to buy 12 French diesel submarines just a few hours before it was publicly announced. 

The EU-member nation is also disappointed at not being made aware of the negotiations that led to the AUKUS trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the U.S. France recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the U.S.  After an intervention by U.S. president Biden, the French ambassador returned to Washington.

In the ASEAN region, both Indonesia and Malaysia have expressed their uneasiness with the trilateral security pact.

Tan Sri Ong Tee Keat, chairman of CNIA.

How will the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security pact affect the dynamics in the region?

Strictly speaking, AUKUS has yet to be a pact. It is a trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK and the U.S. It is primarily aimed at empowering Australia’s naval force with nuclear-powered submarines. It serves to counter the rising maritime influence of China in the region. In other words, its inception is likely to turn Asia Pacific into a conflict-prone area from a mere theatre for big powers’ geopolitical contest. 

Under such circumstances, littoral states in the region will conceivably be sandwiched in the escalating Sino-US power face-off which will cause severe backlash to their interests in security as well as economic development. More so, at the cusp of the post-Covid19 recovery.

Should Malaysia be concerned with the AUKUS pact? Why?

Of course. Malaysia, like the other Southeast Asian countries, is likely to bear the full brunt of a backlash, should military conflict between the US-led AUKUS and China take place. The arming of Australia with nuclear-powered submarines through AUKUS will, on one hand, set the tripartite on a collision path against China, thus resurrecting the specter of Cold War. 

On the other hand, it is all poised to set the precedent of nuclear military technology transfer, thus risking to trigger a nuclear arms-race among the middle powers in the region. In the Malaysian perspective, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the ASEAN principle of Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) signed in 1971. This is compatible with the ideal of creating a nuclear-free area in the region.

What are China’s concerns with the AUKUS pact?

The strong response against AUKUS by China is comprehensible as the trilateral stakeholders have been displaying their intention to counter the perceived growing assertiveness of China in the region. In the Chinese perspective, the move is none other than creating a new anti-China partnership complementary to that of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in a U.S. bid to contain China in the region. 

The Americans’ proactiveness in spearheading the security partnership is mainly to serve the U.S. interest of maintaining its maritime primacy worldwide. No doubt it’s consistent with the American principle of “making the world safe for the U.S.” in the name of safeguarding its national security, but it is certainly deemed a provocative saber-rattling at the doorstep of China.

With China’s intrusions into the region, i.e., the May 31 incident where 16 military planes flew into Malaysia’s maritime airspace and the 89 times of intrusions between 2016 and 2019, can Australia’s move, via the AUKUS, create a kind of balance in the region?

The alleged intrusions might have ruffled the feathers of Malaysia diplomatically, but it does not warrant the necessity to justify the inception of AUKUS as a counter-balance in the region. 

The issue of alleged intrusions could be ironed out amicably between the two friendly nations through diplomatic means. Any contemplation to bring in a third party, notably the AUKUS, will only draw Malaysia into the escalating geopolitical rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

Malaysia’s Senior Minister (Security) Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has indicated that the Malaysian Government will meet with China on this. How will this meeting be perceived?

On his proposed meeting with China on AUKUS, it would be premature to judge or portray him as being ready to be dictated by Beijing. Instead, the AUKUS tripartite should take cognizant that the security partnership came as a surprise to the littoral states, including Malaysia. 

This is deemed disrespectful to the region’s commitment to ZOPFAN under the ASEAN framework, thus indirectly prompting countries like Malaysia to heighten their hedge against the newly minted partnership. In this context, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein’s statement may have the wisdom of manifesting the nation’s bet on hedging.

The think-tank CNIA focuses on the “new dynamics of Asia” as said on the CNIA website. Please explain this “new dynamics”.

The 21st century has been projected as the Asian Century, characterized by its rise in economic prowess. Asia, having had its colonial past, is wary of incessant external interventionists intruding into the governance of the region. Asians should be allowed to have their free choices to determine their respective destiny. 

Over the decades, Asians have been yearning for a peaceful environment for their desired economic development. Henceforth, any drastic interventionist moves aimed at sowing discord in the region is certainly deemed detrimental to their inherent interests.

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