Malaysia doubles down on AUKUS submarine concerns during Wong visit
Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia has reinforced its concerns about Australia’s plans for a nuclear-powered submarine fleet after a “very candid” discussion between Foreign Minister Penny Wong and her Malaysian counterpart on Tuesday.
The south-east Asian nation joined Indonesia in expressing anxiety about the submarine ambitions soon after the AUKUS three-way defence alliance was announced by US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then prime minister Scott Morrison in September, fearing it could instigate a regional arms race.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong meets with Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah on Tuesday.Credit:Farhan Iqbal
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob also raised alarm last month about the potential knock-on effects of the deal, warning that if China, for example, wanted to help North Korea buy nuclear-propelled submarines “we can’t say no because AUKUS has set a precedent”.
On Tuesday, as Wong made her first visit to the country of her birth as Australia’s top diplomat, the issue was back on the agenda.
“We had a very candid discussion on AUKUS just now,” Malaysia Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said.
“I thank the foreign minister for explaining the current government’s position. Malaysia’s position remains the same. This I have mentioned to the foreign minister.”
Australia is yet to decide how its nuclear-powered submarine program will be rolled out in practice and how it will fill a looming capability gap caused by its ageing Collins-class fleet.
Ageing fleet: A Collins Class submarine at sea.Credit:
There has been a level of acceptance in some corners of south-east Asia about Australia acquiring nuclear technology from either the United States or Britain. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin jnr has backed the pact and Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto – a likely presidential candidate again when elections are next held in 2024 – has also adopted a more phlegmatic approach than the official Indonesian line, saying he understands the need of countries to protect their national interests.
Wary of heightening the risk of conflict in the Indo-Pacific, Malaysia has not budged from its stance, though, with Ismail telling the Japanese newspaper Nikkei last month that “on nuclear-powered submarines, we are worried if some other major economies take advantage of AUKUS”.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Tuesday.Credit:AFR
The deal was inherited by the Labor government but after flying to Kuala Lumpur from Hanoi, where she had met with Vietnamese leaders on Monday, Wong stressed that Australia’s submarine goals were aligned with a commitment to a stable and peaceful region where sovereignty was respected.
“We are not a nuclear power. There are nuclear powers in this region but Australia is not one of them,” she said. “What we are doing is replacing an existing capability with a new capability and that is nuclear-powered submarines.
“I have appreciated the opportunity to explain how we see AUKUS to the [Malaysian] foreign minister and to other counterparts in the visit I have made. It is important that we listen to concerns, that we respond to them respectfully. We hope that over time people’s concerns will be able to be allayed.”
Wong and her counterpart also discussed the human rights crisis in Myanmar, on which Malaysia has taken a lead role on in urging regional action.
Wong is on her second visit to south-east Asia in the less than six weeks since Labor returned to government, having accompanied Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to Indonesia. She has also made three trips to the Pacific in that time.
Australia and Malaysia are long-time security partners including as part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements group, which also includes Britain, Singapore and New Zealand.
As well as regional security and defence cooperation, Saifuddin said he and Wong had discussed working closer together on cybersecurity and on the digital economy.
On Wednesday Wong will also meet with Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Trade Minister Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali before travelling to Kota Kinabalu, the Malaysian city on the island of Borneo where she was born.
“As people know, I was born in Kota Kinabalu and it is a very special day for me to come here representing the country I now am living in,” Wong said.
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