Southeast Asian states announce strategic pact with Australia
Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed in late October 2021 to establish a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” a sign of Canberra’s ambition to play a bigger role in the region.
The pact would further strengthen Australia’s diplomatic and security ties in a fast-growing area that has become a strategic battleground.
Concrete strategic objectives of the partnership were not immediately announced, but Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised that his nation would “back it with substance.” (Pictured: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, center, speaks during the virtual Association of Southeast Asian Nations-Australia Summit in October 2021.)
“This milestone underscores Australia’s commitment to ASEAN’s central role in the Indo-Pacific and positions our partnership for the future,” he said in a joint statement with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne. “Australia supports a peaceful, stable, resilient, and prosperous region, with ASEAN at its heart.”
Brunei, serving as chair of ASEAN, said the agreement “marked a new chapter in relations” and would be “meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial.”
After the announcement, Australia said it would invest about U.S. $120 million in projects in Southeast Asia on health and energy security, counterterrorism and fighting transnational crime, plus hundreds of scholarships.
Australia already has bilateral strategic partnerships of various levels with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Morrison also sought to reassure ASEAN that a trilateral security pact agreed to in September 2021 by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, under which Australia will get access to nuclear-powered submarines, will not threaten the region.
The new pact, known as AUKUS, has raised some concerns in Southeast Asia that the People’s Republic of China could see it as a move to challenge its influence in the region, particularly in the South China Sea.
Indo-Pacific allies and partners, including the U.S., have increased patrols as Beijing has deployed its maritime fleet to buttress its sovereignty claims over most of the South China Sea — claims that have been rejected as illegal by an international tribunal.
“AUKUS adds to our network of partnerships that support regional stability and security,” Morrison said.
In an earlier meeting with ASEAN leaders, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stressed his country’s strong opposition to challenges to a free and open maritime order, underscoring regional concerns about the PRC’s growing military clout.
He said he also mentioned the human rights situations in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as the importance of peace and stability in the waters between China and Taiwan.
IMAGE CREDIT: REUTERS