Australia seeks to calm ASEAN concerns over AUKUS nuclear submarine deal

Scott Morrison called to reassure Joko Widodo following Australia's controversial deal with the UK and the US to move to nuclear submarines.( AP:Tracey Nearmy/ABC News:Matt Roberts)

Some South-East Asian nations also worry that the new defense partnership between the US, Australia and the United Kingdom — known as AUKUS — could further marginalize the region’s peak diplomatic group, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Australian diplomats and defense officials are intensively briefing their counterparts across South-East Asia, in an effort to calm anxieties.

Indonesia is not the only South-East Asian country to sound the alarm about the nuclear power submarines.

On the weekend, Malaysia’s new Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, said the project could “provoke other powers to take more aggressive action in this region, especially in the South China Sea”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke to Indonesian President Joko Widodo yesterday after the country’s Foreign Ministry said it was “deeply concerned about the continuing arms race and power projection in the region” after the announcement of the three-way agreement.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday that he had had a “very warm conversation” with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo by phone while en route to the United States to attend a summit of Western allies and subsequent United Nations engagements.

Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry reminded Canberra of its obligation to maintain peace and stability as a partner of Asean, saying it was “deeply concerned” about the arms race and projection of power in the region.

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Meanwhile, the Philippines, an ally of the US, welcomed the establishment of AUKUS but stressed in a statement issued by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin on Tuesday that “what is essential is Australia’s commitment to the primacy of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and Asean-led mechanisms”.

ASEAN is in talks on issuing its own response to AUKUS and Canberra’s planned acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

Australia enjoys a generally good relationship with ASEAN, and the country is expected to meet at the leadership level for the first time later this year. However, experts have noted that the middle power has been known to take ASEAN’s position for granted and has, at times, tried to undermine or bypass ASEAN in its diplomatic initiatives.

Prime Minister Morrison said his government would continue to engage with ASEAN leaders on the matter.

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