Q&A: Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines and ASEAN’s reaction

China condemned Australia’s plan to acquire attack submarines from the US but how have Southeast Asian nations reacted?

Australia has made its single greatest investment in military capability since World War II, signing a deal with the United States to buy three Virginia class nuclear-powered attack submarines over the next decade and two more vessels if required.

Described as Australian history’s “single biggest leap” in military modernisation, the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines will see Canberra join just six other countries in the world that have such weapons in their inventories.

Agreed under the AUKUS defence pact with the US and the United Kingdom, Australia’s desire to have submarines powered by nuclear propulsion technology has been inspired by one country: China.

China’s meteoric rise as an economic power and, increasingly, as a military titan in the Asia-Pacific region has caused deep concern in Canberra, London and Washington.

Beijing immediately denounced the deal as revealing the “Cold War mentality” of the three AUKUS members, which would “hurt regional peace and stability”.

Several countries in Southeast Asia – where Beijing has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea – have expressed concern over the impact of the deal.

Malaysia this week said it appreciated the need for countries to enhance their defence capabilities and stressed “the importance of all parties within and beyond this security partnership to fully respect and comply with” existing laws relating to the operation of nuclear-powered submarines in regional waters.

To understand how Southeast Asian nations might respond to the move, Al Jazeera spoke to Carlyle A Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

A Southeast Asia specialist and Vietnam expert, Thayer says some nations might be secretly relieved at the agreement, given China’s increasingly assertive approach to its maritime claims.

Al Jazeera: Do you expect a response from members of the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) to Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines from the US?

Thayer: ASEAN as an organisation will not take a stance on this. They have a fundamental principle of non-intervention in internal affairs … But throughout this process, two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, have expressed concerns over proliferation.

Now, the Australian submarines will not be nuclear armed, they’ll be nuclear powered, but, Indonesia makes the argument that that has opened the door for other nations to acquire nuclear-powered vessels and, therefore, there could be proliferation.

The powering of the vessel does not have anything to do with nuclear weapons and some of our critics don’t understand that.

To put things in perspective, our chief of the Navy points out that China launches every year more ships than there are in the entire Royal Australian Navy. And China is rapidly expanding its nuclear-powered-and-armed ballistic submarines – both ballistic missile and attack submarines – so that will be the dominant feature in the region long before [Australia acquires submarines].

I think countries like Vietnam, that have a concern about China, won’t say anything and they’ll be privately happy because any force that balances China and constrains it is in their interest. But it is not in their interest to pick sides overtly.

A country like Cambodia is hard to read. It took such a strong stance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine but then it was chairman of ASEAN and trying to win some favour with the US …

Myanmar is not going to tip the balance. It’s being excluded from the ASEAN meetings. Singapore is not going to complain. They’ll be very happy. They’ll be the one that’s already on side with that. Philippines the same way with the Marcos government.

So the bottom line – and I’m taking sides – is that China’s rapid build-up is the cause, from an Australian point of view, of our counter-reaction and the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

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Al Jazeera: Can I ask you then, why have Indonesia and Malaysia made public their positions on the nuclear-powered submarines? Is that a strategic move on their part?

Thayer: I think it’s a long-held commitment to non-alignment. And there is this underlying feeling in these countries [that] this is going to provoke China and create a war and we’re going to be caught in the middle of it. So they’re seeing this as a tipping point and that you can assuage China by not buying nuclear-powered submarines.

In Australia, we kind of look at China like a bully. And a bully will just keep pushing. You’ve got to stand up and do something.

Indonesia has that non-aligned anti-nuclear aversion in its DNA, so to speak. And we have been at pains, Australia, to talk to them and our prime minister has already begun – he started with Indian Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi – contacting the key leaders in the region to brief them about the [submarine] announcement and where it’s going. But this is 2023 and you’re looking at decades into the future before this becomes a reality.

We have conventional submarines and they’re nearing their end of life in this decade and we’ve got to do something to prevent a capability gap.

As Australia is finding, we don’t have a nuclear industry. We don’t have nuclear engineers and that’s why we have to hitchhike on the American submarines.

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Al Jazeera: You made a really interesting point that China has a huge navy and a large number of already nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered submarines. Yet, China says Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines is provocative. Do you think China could win an information battle in the ASEAN region by convincing the public that Australia is doing something provocative?

Thayer: That’s where it’s going to be fought. But, as I indicated, I think there’s a residual group of countries – Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, but not necessarily in that order – that will block any consensus within ASEAN to oppose Australia acquiring nuclear-powered subs if it began to emerge.

So I go back to the original point: ASEAN itself as an organisation will just stay out of it. It has an ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which basically tells both the superpowers… “we’re not going to take sides”.

China is trying to quadruple – I think the head of the national intelligence community in the US said just recently – its ballistic missile capabilities. So what we have with Russia pulling out of the START [Strategic Arms Reduction] Treaty is the superpowers developing nuclear weapons without the controls that the Soviet Union and the US did following the confrontation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when they both stepped back.

I think [the former Soviet Union leader Nikita] Khrushchev or someone said that you win a nuclear war by eating ashes – there is no victory. So you have to control it.

So the war, the information war, to address that point, for those countries that are claimant states in the South China Sea – and that includes Malaysia and Indonesia – they are offside already because of China’s aggressive actions. And, you know, when Indonesia and Vietnam just signed, finally, a treaty delimiting the sea boundary – they had already long ago did the continental shelf – China reacted by putting its largest Coast Guard ship in Indonesian waters.

So China’s going to have the problem of being aggressive on the South China Sea and then turning around and asking for help against the provocative Australians.

I’m afraid we’re seeing greater turbulence than ever before: From the rhetoric of [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and from his foreign minister… and we now have a US Congress that has a committee to investigate everything bad about China and that just ups the rhetoric in the United States, even to the point of some extremists in the Republican Party, I would say, not wanting to give weapons to Ukraine because it’s distracting from China.

That’s not helping our region. ASEAN would be better, countries with concern would be better, placed to put pressure on all parties, including China, to start meeting and talking to each other – like the Soviets and the United States did, and they worked it out.

During the Cold War, the Soviets stood right off San Diego in international waters and American ships stood off Vladivostok, and they monitored each other and they didn’t go to war.

Al Jazeera: What is the public perception of this deal in Australia? Is the acquisition of the submarines seen as a natural technological advance or the trajectory for a possible confrontation with China one day?

Thayer: Most important, this was all initiated by the previous government. So we have unparalleled bipartisanship on a foreign policy issue of major importance. The biggest defence acquisition since the second world war. So the debate here at the moment, and the concerns, are cost.

It’s just come out … the whole thing over 30 years would cost 368 billion Australian dollars ($247bn). But it’s going to produce 20,000 jobs over those 30 years… So it’s a kind of mixed reaction because of the cost and the uncertainty

But the opposition can’t really criticise because they began it.

The costs are enormous but the benefits are those jobs… so it’s generally positive.

Source: Al Jazeera