The Philippines backs a new U.S.-U.K.-Australia defense pact that addresses a military “imbalance” in Southeast Asia, Manila’s top diplomat said Tuesday, in remarks that contrasted sharply with Indonesian and Malaysian concerns about a regional arms race.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. did not name any countries responsible for this so-called imbalance, but he was likely referring to China. Manila and Beijing have had several verbal spats over China’s increased militarization in the South China Sea.
Australia’s neighbors in Southeast Asia “do not possess the military wherewithal to maintain peace and security” in the region, he said in a statement issued to reporters on Tuesday.
“There is an imbalance in the forces available to the ASEAN member states, with the main balancer more than half a world away,” Locsin said of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Locsin again did not name which country he was referring to when he spoke about “the main balancer,” but he likely was alluding to the United States, Manila’s longtime military ally.
“The enhancement of a near abroad ally’s ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it.”
The trilateral AUKUS pact – which provides Australia with the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines – would also quicken allies’ response time to counter threats in the disputed South China Sea, Locsin said.
“Proximity breeds brevity in response time, thereby enhancing an ASEAN near friend and ally’s military capacity to respond in timely and commensurate fashion to a threat to the region or a challenge to the status quo. This requires enhancing Australia’s ability, added to that of its main military ally, to achieve that calibration,” he said.
The AUKUS pact unveiled last week is thought to be designed to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea where Beijing has sweeping claims that are disputed by its neighbors.
Last week, Beijing denounced the new trilateral partnership. Its embassy was not immediately available to comment on Tuesday.
‘Weaponry competition between superpowers’
While the Philippines is openly embracing the new defense partnership, some Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia have expressed alarm over nuclear submarines operating in regional waters.
Last Friday, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob received a courtesy call from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who explained the trilateral pact.
Ismail Sabri “expressed concern that such cooperation will trigger competition between countries in the Indo-Pacific region in weaponizing their armory with nuclear weapons,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement the next day.
“Concern [was also raised] on the possibility that it will provoke other powers to act aggressively in the region especially in the South China Sea.”
Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said he told his Australian counterpart, Marise Payne, “firmly” that “we did not want to be trapped in the middle of this weaponry competition between superpowers.”
He said the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta had contacted all foreign ministers after the trilateral pact’s announcement, “and we are in the midst of preparing a joint statement on the issue.”
Similarly, on Monday, the Indonesian navy and coast guard echoed an earlier statement from the country’s foreign ministry.
AUKUS has the potential to increase tensions in the South China Sea that could have an impact on Indonesia, said Adm. Aan Kurnia, head of the coast guard (Bakamla).
“This could signal a potential escalation and we need to clearly understand what the direct and indirect impacts on Indonesia are,” Aan said in a meeting with a parliamentary commission.
“One direct impact of the escalation can be predicted – there will be many large military forces in the SCS.”
The day after the pact was announced, Indonesia’s foreign ministry said it was “very concerned about the continued arms race and projection of military power in the region.”
“Indonesia emphasizes the importance of Australia’s commitment to continue to fulfill its obligations regarding nuclear non-proliferation,” a ministry statement said.
The Philippines’ Locsin, however, said that without the actual presence of nuclear weapons, the AUKUS pact would not violate a 1995 treaty banning arms in the region.
Like the Philippines, ASEAN member Singapore responded positively to AUKUS.
Thailand has not yet issued an official statement on the new pact, but a former Thai foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, told BenarNews last week that the Chinese showed “assertive and aggressive ambition.”
“No one country in the region wants to be under the domination of China, and the U.S. presence is thus a necessity.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.