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Aukus subs deal firms China support for Asean nuclear weapon-free zone

- SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST - Laura Zhou - MAR 28, 2023 -

China is willing to sign a treaty making Southeast Asia a nuclear weapons-free zone, in Beijing’s latest effort to woo its neighbours and counter Washington’s decision to speed the sale of nuclear-powered submarines and technology to Australia.

Asean secretary general Kao Kim Hourn (left) and Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang in Beijing on Monday. Photo: Xinhua

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang made the pledge at a meeting with Kao Kim Hourn, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in Beijing on Monday. It would make China the first major nuclear power to commit to the zone.

“China is willing to take the lead in signing the protocol to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone treaty and advocate with Asean for solidarity and win-win cooperation to safeguard regional security and stability,” he said.

The treaty has been in force since 1997 and obliges the 10 Asean member states “not to develop, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons; station or transport nuclear weapons by any means; or test or use nuclear weapons”.

None of the five recognised nuclear-armed states – China, France, Russia, Britain and the US – has acceded to the treaty’s protocol, which implies a commitment not to use nuclear weapons within the zone or against any contracting state.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in 2021 that Beijing was ready to sign the protocol – also known as the Bangkok Treaty – “at the earliest possible date”, just months after the US-led Aukus alliance with Australia and Britain was unveiled.

The latest pledge comes at a time when China is increasingly vigilant towards Aukus, which two weeks ago announced a pathway for Australia to acquire three, possibly five, US nuclear-powered submarines by the early 2030s.

In his meeting with Kao, Qin said China’s domestic and foreign policies had maintained “a high degree of stability and continuity”, according to a Chinese foreign ministry readout.

Qin said China’s policies would “inject more stability into regional peace and tranquillity, while providing more strong momentum for regional development and prosperity”.

Also on Monday, Kao had a separate meeting with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi – now also a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo – who reaffirmed Beijing’s “firm support to Asean’s strategic autonomy, unity and self-improvement”.

“We must maintain the peaceful development environment that we have jointly created over the past decades, resolutely resist the cold war mentality and oppose attempts to create confrontation between major powers and camps,” Wang said, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

Beijing is strongly opposed to Aukus and the Quad – a US-led partnership with Japan, India and Australia – which together form the centrepiece of Washington’s strategy of building alliances to contain China, in its view.

The Aukus announcement – which may pave the way for Canberra to eventually build its own attack submersibles – was described by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin as “nothing but selfish”. The US, Australia and Britain “had gone further down a wrong and dangerous road”, he said.

The deal also intensified regional concerns in Southeast Asia. Hours after the announcement, Malaysia said it was important for all countries to refrain “from any provocation that could potentially trigger an arms race or affect peace and security in the region”.

Indonesia, another major power in Southeast Asia, urged Australia to comply with its non-proliferation treaty obligations, saying that it was the responsibility of all countries to maintain peace and stability in the region.

In his meeting with Kao, Qin also called for progress on negotiations over a code of conduct for the South China Sea, aimed at managing tensions between Beijing and other territorial claimants.

Four Asean members – the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei – have ongoing territorial disputes with China in the strategically important waterway.

Qin said China was “ready to work with Asean countries to eliminate external interference” and reach the code of conduct as soon as possible.

Turning to another regional issue, Qin said Beijing was in “full support” of Asean mediating peace talks in Myanmar, a member state.

Laura Zhou joined the Post's Beijing bureau in 2010. She covers China's diplomatic relations and has reported on topics such as Sino-US relations, China-India disputes, and reactions to the North Korea nuclear crisis, as well as other general news.


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