The Philippines said Thursday that it expected a newly unveiled defense partnership and nuclear submarine deal between the U.S., Australia and U.K. to uphold peace and stability in Southeast Asia but it must also have nuclear safeguards.
In a guarded statement – its first public comments since the American, Australian and British leaders gathered in San Diego on March 13 to announce details of the so-called AUKUS agreement – Manila said that it appreciated how they had kept the Philippines informed about the deal.
It is widely seen as a move by the three Western allies to counter China’s military expansionism in the Pacific region amid heightened tensions over Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea.
“As the Philippines remains committed to strengthening our existing bilateral security arrangements in the region, we particularly note the assurances made at the highest levels that AUKUS will contribute to the preservation of regional peace and stability,” the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
“For the Philippines, it is important that partnerships or arrangements in the Indo Pacific region, such as AUKUS, support our pursuit of deeper regional cooperation and sustained economic vitality and resilience, which are essential to our national development and to the security of the region,” the department said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Under the deal, Australia will spend up to U.S. $245 billion to purchase five Virginia-class attack submarines from the United States and will also work with the United Kingdom to build more nuclear-powered subs for the Australian fleet with a British design.
Beijing has criticized the partnership, saying this week that through AUKUS, the United States, Australia and Britain were taking the international community “further down the wrong and dangerous path.”
“We’ve repeatedly said that the establishment of the so-called AUKUS security partnership between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia to promote cooperation on nuclear submarines and other cutting-edge military technologies is a typical Cold War mentality,” Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a regular press conference on Tuesday.
“It will only exacerbate [the] arms race, undermine the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and hurt regional peace and stability.
In its statement, the Philippines also called on the AUKUS partners to put in place safety standards for the nuclear submarines.
The partners under the AUKUS program “should cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that its activities observe the relevant international nuclear safeguards and non-proliferation standards,” it said.
None of the ASEAN countries with overlapping claims to the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, have nuclear weapons in their arsenals. Fellow ASEAN states Malaysia and Indonesia have in particular have expressed concerns about the prospect of the nuclear submarines operating in regional waters. As early as 1995, the ASEAN bloc committed to a nuclear weapons-free region.
While China was not mentioned on Monday by the leaders of the three countries as the main reason for their defense partnership, analysts and officials in the region have said the endeavor was clearly meant to blunt Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific.
As Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak flanked him on the stage at a navy base in San Diego on Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden tried to assure countries worldwide that the AUKUS partners were “deeply committed” to nuclear non-proliferation.
“I want to be clear to everyone from the outset … so there’s no confusion or misunderstanding on this critical point: These subs … They’re nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed,” Biden said.
“Australia is a proud non-nuclear weapons state and has committed to stay that way. These boats will not have any nuclear weapons of any kind on them.”