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Malaysia plans China consultations as anxiety simmers over Aukus defence pact

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Malaysia’s foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein (left) with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in April. Photo: Xinhua

Malaysia’s defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Wednesday said he planned to visit China soon to hold consultations with counterparts there about the Aukus defence pact.

The out-of-the-blue plan for a visit signalled anxiety in Kuala Lumpur and across Southeast Asia that the trilateral agreement between Australia, the United States, and Britain could intensify the US-China rivalry and worsen regional security, an analyst said.

Malaysia, like other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), has strong economic ties with China, and has sought not to be pulled into the tussle for regional dominance between the two superpowers.

Responding to a parliamentary question, Hishammuddin said he planned to undertake a “short working trip” to China to “get the views of their leadership, particularly their defence, on what their views are on Aukus, and what could be their action”.

The minister was responding to a question by former defence minister Mohamad Sabu – who is now part of the opposition bloc – on whether Malaysia would play a role in Aukus given its long-standing strategic ties with Canberra and London under the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA).

Hishammuddin told Sabu that he had advised his Australian counterpart, Peter Dutton, to hold talks about Aukus with Brunei – the current Asean chair – and countries such as CambodiaMyanmarLaos and Vietnam, which have close ties with Beijing.

This was to ensure that these countries’ concerns on whether the pact could negatively affect the region, especially in defence, were allayed, Hishammuddin said.

“Our strength is not when we are alone, our strength is when the 10 Asean member countries unite to ensure the position and security of the region be defended,” he added.

The veteran minister also said Aukus’ impact was of particular concern to Malaysia given its involvement in the FPDA, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. The security arrangement came into force after former colonial rulers Britain withdrew forces east of the Suez in 1967.

Hishammuddin did not provide further information on his planned visit to China.

His comments dovetail with remarks over the weekend by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who said the Aukus pact risked triggering a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region as well as increased aggression in the disputed South China Sea.

Other prominent Malaysian politicians, including government critic Mahathir Mohamad, have sounded a similar note.

Mahathir, the 96-year-old two-time prime minister who shaped the country’s contemporary non-aligned foreign policy, this week told the Australian Financial Review that the Aukus pact escalated the risk of great power conflict.

“This agreement indicates you openly regard China as a possible enemy and that, if it comes to the crunch, you might even go to war. Just imagine what war would do to Southeast Asia,” he said in the interview, which was published on Tuesday.

Mahathir, during his 2018-20 stint as prime minister, repeatedly suggested that Western activities in the disputed 

South China Sea – including freedom of navigation exercises – did more harm than good. Malaysia, along with Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam, are claimants in the disputed waterway, while Indonesia is also an interested party.

Beijing says it has maritime rights and sovereignty over much of the resource-rich waters due to “historic rights”, while the Southeast Asian states say this assertion contravenes their rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at Australia’s Tasmania University, said Hishammuddin’s remarks on Wednesday fit with Kuala Lumpur’s ongoing effort to “hedge their bets” with world powers.

The professor, a keen Malaysia watcher, described Hishammuddin as “pro-China” and added that while officials were uncomfortable with China’s rise, “they are more worried that America – which is a declining power – might confront China just to show that they are still a power to be reckoned with”.

Such a contest would likely play out in the South China Sea, which is what worried Malaysia the most, Chin said.

He reiterated that even if the Asean bloc were to function as a cohesive unit – the grouping has long been plagued with infighting – it was too small to sway the major powers and would be a mere spectator to any conflict within the region.

Australia, for its part, has in recent days emphasised that Aukus was not a formal defence pact or alliance.

Under the arrangement unveiled last week, Canberra will get access to US technology to develop indigenous nuclear-powered submarines that will be operational in the 2040s.

Australia has stressed that it has no plans for the submarines to be armed with nuclear weapons. All six nations that currently operate nuclear-powered submarines – the US, Britain, France, China, Russia and India – are nuclear-weapon states.