BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Southeast Asian nations have responded cautiously to the recent announcement of a trilateral security agreement between the US, UK and Australia, fearing it could spark an arms race in the disputed South China Sea.

Brunei, the current chair of ASEAN, said there are diverging views on the alliance among the bloc’s members, but that ASEAN is worried the pact may provoke further tension between western powers and China.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs YB Dato Erywan Yusof said that ASEAN should remain central to any security arrangement in the region.

“Whatever the intention of AUKUS, the concern is that it may lead to further tension,” he told reporters, after briefing them on the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting held earlier in the week.

Among the bloc’s members, Malaysia and Indonesia have both warned that the new pact could provoke a nuclear arms race in the region, while Singapore struck a more neutral tone by saying it hopes the allicance “would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region.”

The tripartite agreement — known as “AUKUS”– will see the UK and US provide Australia with the technology and capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, with the three countries working together in the Indo-Pacific region in a bid to counter China’s dominance.

Dato Erywan said he had spoken with Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne about how the AUKUS alliance would impact Southeast Asia and its effort to create a nuclear weapon-free zone, but had yet to speak with his counterparts in the UK and US.

Under the agreement, Australia will explore hosting US bombers on its territory; gain access to advanced missiles as well as nuclear propulsion technology to power its submarines – the first time the US has ever shared this technology with a country besides the UK.

Australia will become just the seventh nation in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines, after the US, UK, France, China, India and Russia.

These submarines are much faster and harder to detect than conventionally powered fleets. They can stay submerged for months, shoot missiles longer distances and also carry more weight.

Having them stationed in Australia would be critical to US influence in the region.

How have other countries reacted?

The new agreement signals that the US, Australia and UK view the South China Sea — an area of tremendous economic and geostrategic importance — as a key venue for this contest with China.

Beijing has denounced the new alliance, accusing the three countries of undermining regional stability and operating under a “zero sum Cold War mentality”.

France also called the deal a “stab in the back” after Australia abruptly cancelled its US$66 billion contract to purchase 12 submarines.

While Canberra said it has no intention of obtaining nuclear weapons, some ASEAN countries are worried that AUKUS is a clear sign the Anglo alliance will take a more aggressive stance towards China.

Dato Erywan said during Monday’s meeting, ASEAN ministers called on “all the parties who have interests and concern in the region to work together to ensure peace and security… in the South China Sea and to uphold the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific.”