• Military Equipment from Neutral Party Is Key To Avoid Raising Regional Temperatures stemming from the US-China Tensions
  • Malaysia must be strategic on upcoming defence purchases, including Light Combat Aircraft, to protect national sovereignty

Last month, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia announced the establishment of AUKUS, a new trilateral security partnership that will see Australia assemble a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

After holding bilateral talks in Jakarta on Monday, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi restated the concerns that they stated in the immediate aftermath of the AUKUS announcement. “Although the country [Australia] stated that these are nuclear-powered submarines and not nuclear-armed ones, both our governments expressed concern and disturbance,” Saifuddin told a joint news conference after the meeting.

Retno added that the situation would “certainly not benefit anyone.” She said, “We both agreed that efforts to maintain a peaceful and stable region must continue and don’t want the current dynamics to cause tension in the arms race and also in power projection.”

AUKUS has met a mixed and ambivalent reaction from Southeast Asia’s 11 governments. The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, has strongly backed AUKUS, saying it offers a necessary counterbalance to an increasingly assertive China. Other nations have struck a more neutral tone. Singapore has expressed hopes that the deal will “contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture,” while Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said that his country “expected that AUKUS will not fuel unhealthy rivalries and further escalate tension.”

Reactions have reflected the trepidation that many Southeast Asian governments feel amid the rising strategic competition between China and the United States. The fact that the AUKUS partnership, like the recently revived Quad partnership between Japan, Australia, India, and the U.S., has implicitly been motivated by China’s growing power and ambition, including its expansive claims in the South China Sea, Southeast Asian governments are understandably fearful of being caught in a hot war

In a recent article for East Asia Forum, Evan Laksmana of Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies said that Indonesia’s trepidation about the AUKUS partnership reflected a fundamental strategic misalignment between Canberra and Jakarta.

In their recent statements, Washington, London, and Canberra have been fond of depicting competition with China not just as a proximate challenge to the status quo in Asia, but also as an ideological showdown between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. In the words of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, AUKUS aims for “a world that favors freedom, that respects human dignity, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states, and the peaceful fellowship of nations.”

There is a certain complacency in assuming that because the AUKUS powers claim to be advancing and defending universal values, that their threat perceptions are shared universally. The reality is that most of Southeast Asia is somewhere in the middle on the question of U.S.-China competition, valuing its ties with both superpowers, and reluctant to be drawn into a pattern of escalation between the two sides.

Malaysia would do well to carefully consider its upcoming purchase of Light Fighter Aircraft (LCA) that is strategically neutral and not tied to both US or China. It must also weigh the danger of giving an advantage to any one country to have hold on the Air force of both Malaysia and Indonesia.

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