• Brunei’s sultan says upgraded ties marks ‘new chapter’ in relations
• Australia PM defends AUKUS trilateral pact
• Canberra working to ratify RCEP this year
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Australia and ASEAN agreed on Wednesday to establish a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, a sign of Canberra’s ambition to play a bigger role in the region.
Announced after the ASEAN-Australia Summit, the pact would further strengthen Australia’s diplomatic and security ties in a fast-growing area that has become a strategic battleground between major powers in the region.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would invest AUD$154 million in projects in Southeast Asia on health and energy security, counter-terrorism, fighting transnational crime, plus hundreds of scholarships.
“This milestone underscores Australia’s commitment to ASEAN’s central role in the Indo-Pacific and positions our partnership for the future,” he said in a joint statement with Foreign Minister Marise Payne. “Australia supports a peaceful, stable, resilient, and prosperous region, with ASEAN at its heart.”
Brunei, serving as chair of ASEAN, said the agreement “marked a new chapter in relations” and would be “meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial”.
“ASEAN greatly appreciates Australia’s assistance to address the COVID-19 pandemic in the region,” said His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah. “This includes Australia’s contribution of COVID-19 vaccines and medical supplies to ASEAN member states including Brunei Darussalam.”
Canberra has been scaling up its vaccine diplomacy, promising 30 million doses to Southeast Asia on top of the four million it has already distributed.
It has also pledged AUD$21 million to the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases and a further $1 million to the bloc’s COVID-19 response fund.
Australia defends AUKUS defence pact
Morrison also sought to reassure ASEAN that a trilateral security pact agreed last month between the United States, Britain and Australia, under which Australia will get access to nuclear-powered submarines, would be no threat to the region.
Known by the acronym AUKUS, the defence agreement has raised concerns in Southeast Asia that the move could intensify power rivalries between the West and China, leading to further militarisation of the South China Sea.
The prime minister stressed that Canberra does not want and will not seek nuclear weapons, and it would continue to meet its obligations under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
“I want to address this upfront because transparency and communication on this issue is important to Australia with our ASEAN friends,” he said during Wednesday’s summit.
He added that AUKUS did not change Australia’s commitment to ASEAN centrality or the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, but “reinforces” it.
Morrison also warned of “destabilising actions in the South China Sea continue”, in a veiled reference to Beijing.
“What happens in this international waterway has global implications which you all experience and understand,” he told ASEAN leaders. “Which is why it is so critical to ensure there is a positive balance.”
Military analysts have said the nuclear submarines Australia will buy from the United States have unmatched stealth and underwater longevity. China has opposed the pact and said it could be damaging and intensify an arms race.
The United States and allies have increased patrols to challenge Beijing’s vast maritime fleet which it deploys to buttress its claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
During Wednesday’s summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said he was concerned AUKUS “could spark rivalry in the region”, according to his foreign minister, Retno Marsudi.
US ally the Philippines has backed AUKUS but its president, Rodrigo Duterte said it “must complement and not complicate our working methods for cooperation”.
China is also seeking to upgrade its ties with ASEAN to a comprehensive strategic partnership, and leaders are expected to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in a special summit, to be held virtually, this November.
– With additional reporting from Reuters