June 5, 2023
SINGAPORE – Smaller groupings such as Aukus and the Quad do not seek to replace Asean’s centrality for cooperative security in this region, but to complement it, said Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles.
Dismissing criticism that such groupings aim to diminish the 10-member Asean regional bloc, Mr Marles said on Sunday that Australia has been “as transparent as possible” in communicating its enhanced defence posture and intentions with its nuclear-powered submarine programme under Aukus, and urged China to be more transparent about its own military build-up.
Australia is a party to both Aukus – a trilateral security pact with the United States and Britain – and the Quad, a security dialogue that includes the US, India and Japan.
“The first model for cooperative security is Asean… no other mechanism brings together the critical group of states that are a prerequisite for any durable strategic equilibrium in our region,” he said at a panel discussion on the final day of the Shangri-La Dialogue.
He added: “Asean is a necessary condition for regional security, but the strategic challenges we now face mean that smaller groupings can help complement its central architecture.”
Under Aukus, Australia will acquire a fleet of up to eight nuclear-powered submarines by the mid-2050s, a deal that was announced in March.
This capability will enable Australia to play its part in adding to the collective security of the region and to maintain a rules-based global order, said Mr Marles.
On Saturday, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that helping Australia develop these submarines alongside the US was “important for us all”.
“The rise of China, the scale of China’s military investment, inevitably… encourages like-minded allies, both in the region and indeed the world, to work together even more,” said Mr Wallace.
China has argued that both the Quad and Aukus groupings are anti-China “cliques” and “blocs”, with a Chinese military scholar calling their existence a “contradiction” to Asean’s centrality in the region, during an earlier session on Saturday with US defence chief Lloyd Austin.
Mr Marles stressed on Sunday that Aukus is a technology transfer arrangement and not an alliance, while the Quad is focused on practical engagement beyond defence.
“The challenge is to ensure these models of cooperation are not competitive with Asean, but rather complementary, and this idea is at the heart of Australia’s regional engagement,” he said.
He noted that Australia made more than 60 calls to regional and world leaders when the Aukus submarine deal was announced. He contrasted this with the lack of “strategic assurance” in China’s military build-up, which he previously characterised as the largest conventional military build-up the world has seen since the end of World War II.
“There is a very significant build-up that we are seeing with China, in terms of its military. It is the lack of a strategic explanation for what that’s for, and what that is about,” he said.
Mr Marles did not address an audience member’s question on which parts of China’s military programme he found opaque.
Military spending is on an upward trajectory around the world, with the US expected to spend US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion), China about US$500 billion, and Australia US$40 billion annually on defence by 2030. Asean’s military spending is also expected to rise by 40 per cent to US$130 billion by 2030.
Speaking on the same panel, Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said increased defence spending need not be a source of instability. For instance, Singapore’s own practice is to have an adequate defence budget to deter aggression.
However, the absence of a framework for engagement and cooperation despite competition tilts the balance away from deterrence and increases the risk of conflict, he added.
“In that context, the increased military spending veers towards an arms race with greater potential for destruction,” he said.