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The recent announcement in Washington DC of a new tripartite alliance between Australia, the UK and the US (AUKUS) – aimed at containing China in the Pacific – is now causing Malaysia and some of its Southeast Asian neighbours to finally face some hard truths about the prevailing regional geopolitical situation.  Whatever they may say in public, ASEAN capitals are almost certain to be quietly pleased by the move. It is a measure of just how much perceptions of China have changed since President Xi Jinping took office. While they all want good relations with China, many ASEAN countries worry about Xi’s regional ambitions.

Having only recently learned some hard lessons about China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin opined that AUKUS would “restore and keep” the regional balance of power equation rather than destabilise it. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed the hope that AUKUS “would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture”. Vietnam too obliquely endorsed AUKUS by noting that “all countries strive for the same goal of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and the world over”.

Indonesia and Malaysia rather typically fell back on pro forma statements fussing about an arms race, the dangers of nuclear proliferation and concerns about regional tensions. There was also the usual bromides about the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) and the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ), both relics of a bygone era. Behind it all, however, Indonesia and Malaysia, will be quietly pleased with President Joe Biden’s renewed commitment to the region given their own concerns about China’s territorial ambitions.

Critics of AUKUS tend to forget that this is an arms race brought on by China’s own bad behaviour in the region. Over the past few decades, China has militarised the South China Sea by turning tiny atolls and shoals into permanent heavily armed military bases. It has forcibly occupied islands belonging to ASEAN member countries and aggressively challenged the territorial integrity of ASEAN states. China’s coast guard has also harassed ASEAN fishermen in their own traditional fishing grounds and sought to disrupt petroleum exploration projects in the area. 

And all this in blatant disregard of a 2016 ruling by an independent arbitral tribunal established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that China’s claims to much of the South China Sea have no merit at all.

It is also telling that ASEAN’s own efforts to constrain China’s behaviour in the South China Sea through a regional code of conduct have dragged on for more than 25 years with China stalling progress at every turn. It ought to be obvious by now that China has no intention of agreeing to any code that would restrict its ability to pursue its ambitions in the South China Sea. Its strategy is simply to tie up ASEAN in endless meetings while it actively changes the facts on the ground through base constructions, upgraded naval capabilities and outright gunboat diplomacy. China’s intentions couldn’t be clearer.

It’s not just the AUKUS powers that are alarmed by China’s behaviour; other maritime and trading nations – including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – with an interest in freedom of navigation are equally concerned.  Indeed, all nations which share an interest in keeping navigation through the South China Sea safe and open have a stake in the success of AUKUS.

ASEAN nations too have been quietly upgrading their defence capabilities in response to China’s regional ambitions. Indonesia, for example, has embarked on a USD125 billion force modernization programme. In March this year, Indonesia and Japan also signed their first ever bilateral defence agreement which is expected to pave the way for Japanese arms exports to Indonesia. Singapore’s defence spending is also up with the island state acquiring new submarines and F-35 fighter jets. 

Even Malaysia, despite its studious attempts to avoid displeasing China, is slowly waking up to the reality of China’s regional ambitions. Chinese naval and coast guard assets have persistently and repeatedly intruded into Malaysian waters. In November last year, the China Coast Guard and the Royal Malaysian Navy were involved in another standoff when Chinese vessels attempted to harass a Malaysian drilling rig 44 nautical miles off the coast of Sarawak. 

Earlier this year, 16 Chinese air force planes flying in tactical formation intruded into Malaysian airspace in what was described as a “serious threat to national sovereignty and flight safety”. More recently, a PRC deep-sea resources exploration vessel with an armed escort breached Malaysia’s EEZ off the coast of Sabah. 

Like it or not, thanks to China, we are now smack in the middle of a zone of intensifying big power rivalry. China’s intransigence coupled with ASEAN’s failure to successfully constrain China through a code of conduct has now forced outside powers to respond. AUKUS will provide the region the breathing space it needs to try to work out a new accommodation with China premised upon respect for Southeast Asia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. If ASEAN plays its card well, it will emerge stronger and better able to leverage the US-China rivalry to its own benefit.  The only question that remains is whether Malaysia and other ASEAN nations have the diplomatic skills and strategic vision to milk these developments to the hilt.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 28th September 2021]