SINGAPORE/KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 3 (Agencies): As the strategic importance of the South China Sea (SCS) and Melaka Straits draws the attention of great powers, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) must be on guard by efforts to use the area to base nuclear weapons.
Failing this, the region could see its stability undermined and even a potential arms race, including Asean members, to counter the threat of such developments in waters claimed by multiple states including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
China in particular has come under the spotlight over its activities in the area, significantly strengthening its control over the region in the past two decades, with the country even operating part of its ballistic missile submarine fleet in the area which is increasingly being turned into a bastion.
“The nuclear armed submarines are intended to send a message to both Asean member states and to the US and its affiliates in the region, particularly Australia, Philippines and Japan, that it will continue to stay ahead of all the measures to challenge its regional hegemonic stature,” Collins Chong Yew Keat a foreign affairs analyst with University of Malaya said.
Chong asserted that this has already sparked an arms race of sorts as the US through the AUKUS defense pact with the UK and Australia plans to base nuclear powered submarines to counter the threat posed by China’s growing submarine fleet.
Asean has a long-standing policy of maintaining the region as a Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality and collectively signing the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ Treaty) in 1995, but the moves by China could force members to reevaluate their stand.
Such overt moves run the risk of backfiring towards China, with Asean states alarmed at its conduct in the SCS could see them turn towards the US and the West in a bid to shore up their own positions.
“China already is cognizant of the fact that Asean nations pose little deterrence challenges to its claims, except for the options to solicit greater US countermeasures, and is actually careful in its strategic projection to avoid deeper backfire in Asean nations to be more fearful of its assertive stance and to align with the US for greater support.
“However China plays the long game, and will continue to ensure that SCS will be a crucial second front for its purpose of Taiwan, Pacific expansion and as a base for its longer range blue water power projection with the US in mind,” he explained.
Indonesia’s then President Sukarno considered nuclear weapons options but after his removal from power in 1967, the Indonesian government agreed to a series of international agreements, committing the country to non-proliferation mandates and the peaceful use of nuclear technology. The country has since embarked on a program to build its first nuclear reactor by 2045.
While Chong was dismissive of the capacity for any Asean state to build its own nuclear deterrent, he said the participation by any Asean nation in AUKUS could see a scramble by the others to do the same and leave the region divided between the US and China.
Instead he suggested that a better way forward for Asean security would be for member states to reevaluate their present approaches in order to secure their interests and act to shift the power palance in the region.
“If Asean member states continue to adhere to current norms and to remain tied to its own trapping, it will create a two pronged impact. Firstly, it only emboldens China further in giving it a free passageway to increase its nuclear posture without any real challenge from regional states.
“Secondly it will continue to weaken Washington’s efforts to salvage the last remaining hope of preventing China’s foothold, as Asean's reluctance to welcome the West’s countermeasures to prevent China’s belligerence will only worsen the one sided security and power balance in the region now,” he said. - Agencies