Thomas Daniel was interviewed in Malaysia Now on 18 September 2021.

by Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli

There may be some “residual uneasiness” in Malaysia following the announcement of a new defence pact comprising Australia, the UK and the US which will see Australia obtaining the technology to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, an expert says.

Thomas Daniel, an analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, said the alliance dubbed Aukus was a serious indication of the US’ commitment in the Asia Pacific.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, he noted that the agreement would see the US sharing some of its most sensitive military technology with Australia, which would become only the second nation after Britain to access US nuclear technology for the submarines.

“Malaysia, like most Southeast Asian countries, might have some residual uneasiness about how yet another defence-focused pact involving Asean dialogue partners with presence in this region will impact regional tension,” he said, adding that ties in the region are already under stress.

Daniel was referring to the presence of major powers in the region, particularly in the much disputed South China Sea.

China has built many military installations on artificial islands in the area, and Beijing has laid claim to a vast portion of the maritime territory, causing unease among its Southeast Asian neighbours including Malaysia.

The US and its allies, meanwhile, have deployed warships and other military assets in response.

The new Aukus alliance to strengthen military capabilities in the face of growing rivalry with China was announced on Sept 15.

It sparked a strong reaction from China which accused the US of setting off an arms race.

China’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Wang Wun, meanwhile called the move a “sheer act of nuclear proliferation”.

It also received backlash from France which lost an A$40 billion deal with Canberra for the sale of conventional submarines to Australia. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian went as far as to call the move “a stab in the back” on the part of Australia.

Daniel pointed out that the submarines under the Aukus deal would be nuclear powered, not armed, adding that external regional players have long operated such assets in Southeast Asia.

“The Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone has not been signed by any nuclear armed state,” he added.

To date, six countries possess nuclear-powered submarines: the US, UK, China, Russia, France and India. The Aukus pact is expected to see Australia receive eight such craft.

Australia is already a member of the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the Five Eyes alliance. The former is a defence cooperation involving the UK, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia while the latter is an intelligence-sharing alliance between five English-speaking democracies, comprising the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Unlike either of these two alliances, Daniel said, Aukus has a specific aim of addressing Australia’s long-term defence and security priorities.

He added that being an ally of the US does not guarantee American trust when it comes to defence technology.

“American submarines are among the best there are, and its technology is among the most closely guarded secrets,” he said.

“The US has only ever shared submarine tech with the UK, which magnifies how significant Aukus is for Australia.”

On China’s response, which saw foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying the three countries should abandon their “Cold War mentality”, Daniel said the bulk of criticism would land on Australia especially given reports that Canberra had taken a lead role in proposing the pact.

However, he does not believe that Aukus will be enough to push ties between China and Australia to a point of no return.

For Malaysia, meanwhile, not much can be done about the recent developments, he said.

“Whatever we say, it is unlikely that it will make much of a difference.

“But the reality is that we are in the midst of a time of strategic flux with no immediate or certain outcome in sight. Both Asean and its external partners know that the former isn’t able to offer a serious alternative or address that flux with any certainty.”

This article first appeared in Malaysia Now on 18 September 2021. 

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