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Indonesian and Malaysian concerns over AUKUS

By Murray Hunter - posted Monday, 20 March 2023

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, and US president Joe Biden, publicly announced an implementation timetable for the AUKUS agreement, which until this week had been very abstract.

Under the plan, there would be a combined fleet of nuclear-powered submarines operating from the HMAS Stirling naval base, near Perth, Western Australia. In the joint statement:

  • From 2023, US nuclear-powered subs will increase port visits to Australia, joined three years later by more visits from British nuclear-powered subs. Australian submariners would be trained;
  • In 2027, the US and UK subs will start rotations at HMAS Stirling, that is set to receive a multibillion dollar upgrade;
  • From the early 2030s, pending Congress approval, Australia will buy three Virginia-class submarines from the US, with an option to buy two more;
  • During the 2030s, the UK plans to build its first AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine – combining its Astute-class submarine with US combat systems and weapons; and
  • In the early 2040s, Australia will deliver the first of its domestically built and constructed AUKUS subs to its Royal Australian Navy.

The US and UK will provide Australia with the nuclear material to operate the submarines without the need to refuel. Australia doesn't have the capability to enrich nuclear material to weapons grade, as the Australian submarines will only carry conventional weapons, and plans to abide by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) principles on non-proliferation.

The AUKUS agreement firs announced by the Morrison in 2021 has set Australia on this trajectory, which will dominate Australian defense policy and strategy for the next 30 years. Its based upon a doctrine of forward containment, and to supplement the US presence in the region.

At the time, there wasn't any full debate over why Australia needs to take part in the containment of Chinese military presence in the region, when there were other options, notably more cost effective options available. Most of Australia's neighbors within South-East Asia have opted to be neutral within a region of strategic competition between China and the US. China has accepted, and respected this approach, which allows countries within the region to carry on cordial relations with both military powers.

The cost/benefit analysis of spending AUD $368 billion in the AUKUS commitment can be seen differently, through varying the assumptions behind the commitment. There is also the risk that by the time the AUKUS plan is actually rolled out, the strategic defense requirements of Australia, might well be very different from today.

Chinese reaction

China's president Xi Jinping speaking at the recent party congress, just after his election for his third term as president said 'Western countries – led by the US – have implemented all-round containment, encirclement, and suppression against us, bringing unprecedently severe challenges to the country's development'.


President Xi, just after the AUKUS meeting in San Diego pledged that China would bolster the nation's military. Xi said 'we must build the Peoples' Revolutionary Army into a great wall of steel that effectively safeguards natural sovereignty, security and development'.

Xi said that China has suffered enough at the hands of 'bullying foreign powers'.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that AUKUS partners have completely ignored the concerns of the international community and gone further down a wrong and dangerous path.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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