Foreign Minister Marise Payne visits Southeast Asia to ease fears of AUKUS, submarine plan

Foreign Secretary Marise Payne will pay a major visit to Southeast Asia in the coming days as the federal government moves to allay concerns over Australia’s nuclear submarine program and kill off a new strategic partnership with the highest regional body, ASEAN.

Senator Payne is expected to visit Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam on the trip.

Cambodia has just taken over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), while both Malaysia and Indonesia have sharply criticized Australia’s plan to build nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS technology pact with Britain and the United States.

ABC has been told that Indonesian President Joko Widodo “repeatedly and strongly” raised concerns about the nuclear submarine program when Prime Minister Scott Morrison met virtually with ASEAN leaders last week, reiterating Indonesia’s concerns that the program could boost an arms race in Southeast Asia.

Australian officials have rejected this argument privately, pointing out that Australia’s nuclear submarines will only be conventionally armed and contrast the government’s defense ambitions with China’s massive military build – up.

China is increasing the pressure

Late last week, Defense Secretary Peter Dutton also suggested that some Southeast Asian nations widely criticized the scheme for reassuring Beijing, which has whipped up the nuclear submarine proposal and accused Australia of trying to undermine the global non-proliferation regime.

“We must also recognize that China is a country that has significant economic investment and equities across countries in the region,” Mr Dutton said.

“So there will be nuances in the language.”

Chinese ministers and officials have sought to increase pressure on Australia by bringing nuclear submarines up during bilateral meetings with their Southeast Asian counterparts.

Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry said that Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi both “expressed serious concern about the risk of nuclear proliferation” caused by the submarine plan.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi speaks.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has expressed concern over nuclear proliferation in the region. (Reuters: May Dinar Ulfiana)

But Mr Dutton suggested that military leaders across the region were overwhelming supporters of Australia’s nuclear submarine ambitions, in part because they were eager for other countries to maintain a significant naval presence that would help balance China’s growing military power.

“All I can say to you is that in the discussions I have had with our partners throughout the region, there has been support for AUKUS and support for a larger presence from the UK, US, Japan, India and others,” he said.

A Southeast Asian government official also told ABC that the AUKUS debate had revealed some sharp differences between military officials and foreign affairs in both Indonesia and Malaysia.

The fallout between France and Australia from the AUKUS agreement has dominated the prime minister’s recent trip to Europe, with French President Emmanuel Macron accusing him of lying about the switch to nuclear submarines.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who signed the original agreement with France to build 12 submarines to replace the aging Collins Class fleet, has once again aimed at the way Scott Morrison handled the announcement.

“The submarine agreement was not just a shipbuilding contract, it was a sovereign partnership between France and Australia,” he said.

A new partnership in Southeast Asia

While AUKUS and nuclear submarines will have a prominent place in her discussions, Senator Payne is also expected to discuss the new comprehensive strategic partnership reached between ASEAN and Australia last week.

Australian officials point to the agreement as proof that the dispute over AUKUS and its nuclear submarines has not permanently damaged Australia’s ties with the region, despite public frustrations from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Senator Payne is also likely to pressure Southeast Asian nations to continue maximizing pressure on the military junta, which has seized power and imprisoned civilian leaders in Myanmar.

Myanmar excluded from ASEAN

ASEAN has historically placed great emphasis on consensus and non-interference and has been reluctant to put meaningful pressure on member states that have committed serious human rights violations.

But last month, it decided to exclude Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing from the ASEAN leaders’ summit in a joint effort to ensure the junta could not present itself as the country’s legitimate government.

The bloc also appointed a special envoy, Brunei’s second foreign minister Erywan Yusof, to try to mediate a solution to the bloody political crisis in Myanmar.

Yusof was due to visit Myanmar last month but canceled his trip after being blocked from meeting ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Senator Payne is also expected to discuss Australia’s pledge to distribute an additional 10 million COVID-19 vaccines to countries in the region and its pledges to increase investment in a range of programs focused on topics such as energy security, pandemic recovery, transnational crime, and education.


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