Malaysia’s defense chief will seek Beijing’s views on a new U.S.-U.K.-Australia security pact and determine what action the Asian superpower plans in response, during an upcoming visit to China, he told parliament Wednesday.
The so-called AUKUS pact has opened a divide among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with Malaysia and Indonesia worrying it may spur a regional arms race, and Singapore and the Philippines welcoming it. Meanwhile, an analyst told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that Malaysia consulting China on the alliance was “inappropriate.”
“We need to get the views of the leadership, particularly China’s defense, on what they think of AUKUS and what their action could be,” Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said.
“I plan to soon undertake a short work visit to China.”
He was replying to a question asked in parliament about whether Malaysia would be involved with the new pact because the nation is a member of the Five Powers Defense Arrangement – along with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.
The trilateral pact provides Australia with the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines. It is thought to be aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea where Beijing has sweeping claims, which its neighbors, including Malaysia, dispute.
China has denounced the pact.
Singapore and the Philippines, however, have expressed support, saying the pact would help restore an “imbalance” and lead to stability in the region.
Under the 50-year-old Five Powers Defense Arrangement, members such as Malaysia and Singapore would consult each other “immediately” if there were a threat of an armed attack on any of them. These consultations would help them decide what action to take together or separately.
Despite this arrangement, Malaysia considers itself non-aligned, but has increasingly found itself caught between superpowers China and the United States, in those nations’ quest for dominance in Southeast Asia. Other nations in the region are in a similar bind.
Hishammuddin said he would have to “tread carefully” to try and balance the “two major powers” and that was “not any easy thing” to do. He did not invoke any names but invoked ASEAN.
“Our strength is not when we are alone, our strength is when the 10 ASEAN member countries unite to ensure the position and security of the region be defended,” Hishammuddin said.
Split within bloc
The AUKUS deal, however, has exposed a divide in the regional bloc, Southeast Asian affairs analyst Richard Heydarian remarked.
“The AUKUS deal has clearly shown that there is NO ASEAN position,” Heydarian said on Twitter.
“This is not a monolithic region, with Indonesia and Malaysia predictably throwing neutralist affectations, Vietnam (and likely Singapore too) quietly welcoming it, and the Philippines openly BACKING it!”
Another regional analyst, Oh Ei Sun, said Malaysia preferred to maintain a working strategic relationship with China, “despite China’s frequent incursion into what Malaysia considers to be its territorial waters” in the South China Sea.
“Malaysia would increasingly have to rethink its position straddling the intersection between AUKUS and an increasingly assertive China, particularly in the SCS,” Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told BenarNews.
One such recent intrusion, according to Kuala Lumpur, was the May 31 overflight by 16 Chinese military planes into Malaysia’s maritime airspace over South China Sea waters near Borneo.
Last year, Kuala Lumpur said that Chinese coastguard and navy ships had intruded into Malaysian waters in the disputed waterway 89 times between 2016 and 2019. These Chinese ships often stayed in the area despite Malaysia’s navy telling them to leave, the Malaysian government said.
Malaysia is “in no position whatsoever to feel happy or unhappy about the AUKUS deal, as it does not unequivocally align itself to the U.S.-led coalition,” Oh said.
However, Malaysia would send a message that it no longer is non-aligned if its defense minister consults with China about the trilateral pact, according to Azmi Hassan, an expert in geopolitical strategy.
“For Malaysia to consult China … it creates an uneasy atmosphere as China is not a member of the AUKUS pact, and instead is the potential target of the pact,” Azmi told BenarNews.
“The perception would be that Malaysia sided with China. It is very inappropriate.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.