Regional countries react to AUKUS and Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine ambition

A digital impression of Naval Group Australia's Shortfin Barracuda attach-class submarine.

Southeast Asian countries have raised concerns that Canberra’s decision to develop and procure eight nuclear-powered submarines under a trilateral security partnership with the United Kingdom and United States, announced on 15 September and collectively known as AUKUS, will spark a regional arms race.

The nuclear submarine initiative signals an end to Australia’s contract with French shipbuilder Naval Group for 12 new Attack-class submarines – originally based on a bespoke diesel-electric powered version of the company’s Barracuda/Suffren-class nuclear submarine design customised to suit Australia’s unique operational requirements – to replace the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN’s) ageing Collins-class submarines.

The announcement has caused a stir among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with Malaysia and Indonesia worrying it may spur a regional arms race and the Philippines welcoming it, while Singapore appears to be nominally supportive.

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a 16 September statement that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had been briefed by his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison.

“Prime Minister Lee noted the long-standing bilateral and multilateral relations that Singapore shared with Australia, the UK, and the US, and hoped that AUKUS would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture,” the ministry stated, without referring to the planned submarine development.

Although Jakarta had likewise been briefed prior to the announcement, it nevertheless struck a more cautionary tone. Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a 17 September statement that it is “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”, and that it “takes note cautiously” on this decision.

“Indonesia calls on Australia to maintain its commitment towards regional peace, stability, and security in accordance with the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation,” the ministry stated.

Malaysia appeared to share the same sentiment, with it Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah noting on 19 September that the creation of AUKUS as a development that “could lead to the escalation of arms race in the region”.

“It could also potentially spark tension among the world superpowers and aggravate aggression between them in the region, particularly in the South China Sea,” Saifuddin said, adding that Malaysia is expecting further clarification from Canberra on its intentions.

Malaysia’s Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on 22 September that he will seek Beijing’s views on AUKUS to determine its responses during an upcoming official visit to China.

“We need to get the views of the leadership, particularly China’s defence, on what they think of AUKUS and what their action could be,” he said.

The Philippines threw its support behind AUKUS, with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr saying in a 21 September statement that the new pact addresses a military “imbalance” in Southeast Asia, pointing out that Australia’s regional neighbours “do not possess the military wherewithal to maintain peace and security”.

“There is an imbalance in the forces available to the ASEAN member states, with the main balancer more than half a world away,” Locsin added. “The enhancement of a near abroad ally’s ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it.”

by Jr Ng