Countries bordering the South China Sea that are wary of great power rivalries are reacting slowly and cautiously to the announcement of a trilateral defence pact between the US, the UK, and Australia.
The AUKUS pact, hailed as “historic” by leaders from the three powers, is thought to be designed to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the South China Sea, where China holds sweeping claims that its neighbours dispute.
The US and the UK will also provide Australia with the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines under the terms of the agreement.
The pact has been condemned by China, which claims it will spark an arms race, and other critics believe it could spark a new Cold War. Tensions in the region have been rising due to territorial disputes as China expands its military might.
Southeast Asian countries have reacted cautiously to AUKUS – an acronym for the three participating countries – amid fears of a new, intense strategic rivalry in the Indo-Pacific.
“Many regional countries do not want to be drawn into the US-China rivalry,” Rizal Sukma, a senior researcher at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a former Indonesian ambassador to the United Kingdom, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
On Thursday, AUKUS was announced in the early hours of Asia time. China was quick to express its displeasure. The pact, according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, is “extremely irresponsible” and will backfire on the three parties involved.
They had “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race, and undermined international non-proliferation efforts,” he claimed.
Singapore, one of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), reacted positively, but other governments were more cautious.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry stated on Friday that it is “watching with caution” the Australian government’s decision to purchase nuclear-powered submarines. Indonesia is one of Australia’s closest neighbors, and while it does not have a territorial claim in the South China Sea, its exclusive economic zone overlaps with China’s.
According to a ministry statement, Indonesia is “very concerned about the region’s continued arms race and projection of military power.”
Jakarta “encourages Australia and other related parties to continue promoting dialogue in peacefully resolving differences” and calls on other parties in the region to follow international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Indonesia was among the first nations in the Indo-Pacific to be informed of the new AUKUS agreement, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reportedly stated that he would seek to speak with Indonesian President Joko Widodo “soon.”
According to the Philippine Department of Defense, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana spoke by phone with his Australian counterpart Peter Dutton on Friday, during which Dutton “understood that Australia wants to be seen as a neighbour that promotes regional peace.”
Lorenzana told Dutton that his country “wishes to maintain good bilateral defence relations with all other countries in the region,” implying that Manila does not want to be seen as taking sides.
Southeast Asian countries risk being sidelined on their own strategic chessboard due to a lack of a strong regional security structure. Sukma believes that ASEAN, which was founded 54 years ago, has become lacklustre and “more irrelevant,” and that the organization “has the capacity to be a place where great powers’ interests can be managed.”
Most Southeast Asian governments, including Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, have yet to comment on AUKUS, hinting at the prevailing strategic uncertainty in the region.
Singapore, however, was upbeat.
Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said in a phone call with Australian Premier Morrison that he hoped the new deal would “contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.”
Lee’s statement suggests that there may be much more support in the region for having a deterrent, military presence than openly claimed.
“No one country in the region wants to be under the domination of China and the U.S. presence is thus a necessity,” said Kasit Piromya, Thailand’s former minister of foreign affairs.
In the last 40 years, China has become the second-largest economy in the world and made gains in technological advancement. However, “the current Chinese leadership has become revisionist with assertive and aggressive ambition,” argued Kasit.
In his opinion, “the ball is more in the Chinese court whether China wants to keep on continuing to dominate the region or to take stock of the limitation of power and the resources to back up the power.”
“The United States has more allies while China only has a marriage of convenience with Russia,” he said.
Apart from the new tripartite alliance, the U.S is also part of an Indo-Pacific security grouping known as the Quad, together with Australia, India and Japan. President Joe Biden will be hosting a summit of the Quad leaders in Washington, D.C., next week.
“The U.S.-led alliances are playing an important role in countering and containing China’s assertiveness,” said Nguyen Ngoc Truong, a former Vietnamese ambassador and well-known political affairs analyst.
Vietnam has been making an effort to balance the relationships with both China and the U.S., with the country’s leaders always insisting that they would not side with any country against China.
Yet Vietnam and China are embroiled for years in a tense territorial dispute in the South China Sea and AUKUS should bring “a new confidence to countries contesting China’s excessive claims,” according to the former Vietnamese diplomat.
“Beijing may become even more aggressive. However, China reaps what it sows. “