Indonesia’s defence minister has said his country understands the reasons behind the United States, Australia and Britain establishing the AUKUS security agreement, though at a forum at the weekend repeated concerns about an arms race in the region.
The trilateral security pact, formulated in part to respond to a rising China, has sparked regional worries given it allows for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
When asked about AUKUS at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue in Bahrain on Saturday, defence minister Prabowo Subianto said he understood why countries would move to secure their interests.
“Officially our position is that of course Southeast Asia should remain nuclear free, and the fear of course among Southeast Asian nations is that this will spark an arms race,” he said.
“But as I said the emphasis of every country is to protect their national interest. If they feel threatened… they will do whatever they can to protect themselves,” said Prabowo.
“And this is what I mean that we understand that and we respect them.”
His comments appear to offer a more pragmatic view of the pact after Indonesia’s foreign ministry issued a statement in September saying it was “deeply concerned” by the alliance, warning that it could spark a regional arms race.
The security pact comes amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, as countries push back against China’s maritime claims in the strategic, and resource-rich waterway.
On Friday the United States called China’s use of water cannon against Philippine resupply boats in the South China Sea “dangerous, provocative and unjustified”.
Indonesia’s navy in September increased patrols around its Natuna islands after Chinese and U.S. vessels were detected in nearby waters, while there has also been recent activity by a Chinese research vessel near an oil rig in the area.
China has not claimed the Natuna islands, but says it has nearby fishing rights within a self-proclaimed Nine-Dash Line that includes most of South China Sea – a claim disputed by some Southeast Asian countries and not recognised internationally.