KUALA LUMPUR: AUKUS, the trilateral security partnership involving Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) could heighten tensions in the Indo-Pacific.
Therefore it is crucial for ASEAN as regional association to get proactive in dealing with the challenges looming large over the region, starting with the contentious South China Sea issues, said strategic affairs expert Dr Rahul Mishra.
"The challenges posed by great power competition are not unique to the Southeast Asian region. South China Sea issue is a tad more contentious, and the international community keeps a close watch on it because more than sixty per cent of global maritime trade passes through the sea.
"Concerns that extra-regional powers might have over the region are primarily driven by two interests: first, protecting their energy and trade supply routes and global commons; Second, protecting the interests of their security partners in the region.
"The US-China rivalry has undoubtedly posed a massive security challenge for the Southeast Asian regional security. To avoid any unpleasant situation or worse - turning into a flashpoint - ASEAN must get more proactive in dealing with these dangers in the region," he said in a written reply to Bernama.
Elaborating further, Rahul who is also a Senior Lecturer at Universiti Malaya (UM)'s Asia-Europe Institute (AEI) said in averting any potential conflict it is also imperative for ASEAN and all claimants in the South China Sea dispute to adhere to the Code of Conduct (CoC) being worked out.
According to South China Sea Expert Working Group, the ASEAN-China COC can articulate and clarify aspects of the international rules-based order as applied to the South China Sea and establish important rules and processes for managing tensions pending the eventual settlement of disputes.
"The most crucial step in averting any potential conflict is to go to the root of the problem. ASEAN and China cannot remain oblivious to the fact that the South China Sea dispute must be resolved expeditiously.
"The most effective way is to sign a binding CoC on issues relating to the South China Sea and honour their commitments honestly. Everything else will be a stopgap ad-hoc solution which would always keep ASEAN and its members anxious and the possibility of conflict alive.
"Several stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific have already endorsed the ASEAN-centrality that binds them together, and AUKUS is unlikely to disregard that," he added.
Announced by US President Joe Biden on Sept 15, AUKUS the new trilateral Indo-Pacific security alliance with Britain and Australia will allow for greater sharing of defence capabilities -- including helping equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
The partnership also covers cooperation on artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technologies, and undersea capabilities -- apparently aimed at countering China's rising power in the Indo-Pacific region.
As for concerns raised by Indonesia and Malaysia that AUKUS could potentially spark a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region, Rahul said the concern is justified.
"I understand the concerns that Indonesia and Malaysia have. Southeast Asia is a nuclear-weapon-free zone, and any challenge to it, however remote, will not be taken positively by countries of the ASEAN region," he said noting that AUKUS seems an unnecessary adventure as compared with the European United (EU)'s Indo-Pacific strategy.
"However, I don't think the current US-Australia submarine deal can directly lead to Australia going nuclear or a possible nuclear arms race. These are nuclear-powered submarines that the US has agreed to supply to Australia," he said.
Meanwhile, Associate Professor in Strategic Studies and Deputy Director (Research) at Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia's Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) Associate Prof Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey said it is still too early to see how AUKUS is going to materialise.
He pointed out that the countries involved might change when the time comes, not to mention AUKUS indirectly could change their foreign policies as well, hence the deal has a "long way to go".
"First of all, we do not even know the AUKUS is something that will stay together for long. We don't even know whether that deal will go through or not, because (if I'm not mistaken) it will take 10 years to build and design a nuclear power submarine for Australia. It is not something that will happen overnight.
When asked whether the AUKUS deal could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, Adam said this will not happen as the deal had so far stated that Australia will only be equipped with nuclear-powered submarine, and not armed with nuclear weapons.
"It is not about a nuclear warhead that could cause a nuclear explosion. So this is actually nuclear propulsion that powers the submarine and is not a weapon.
"Nuclear systems generating electricity or powering something is slightly different from the nuclear arms race. In addition, only a few countries have the know-how and technology to build nuclear-powered submarines, ships, or aircraft carriers -- and that's the US, India, UK and France.
"Even, if any country wants to buy one, there are no sellers ... unless you are a close ally to one of the big superpowers," Adam told Bernama, noting if the deal is sealed Australia will be the eighth country in the world that owns a nuclear submarine after the US, UK, France, Russia, China, India and Brazil.