Australia needs to step up its presence in southeast Asia to combat the rising tide of Chinese influence, a leading defence analyst has warned.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said Australia had a lot of consular catching up to do and should invest more in its diplomats and aid programs.
“We need to get over the Australian view that everything can be done on the smell of an oily rag,” he told AAP.
“The more aggressive China gets (in the region), particularly around military basing, the more we have to do to push back and present an alternative.
“We have been way too relaxed about our position in southeast Asia, probably thinking that it is stronger than it really is, and we have been caught flat-footed with the volume of Chinese money.”
The US defence department’s annual Chinese military power report last week flagged that China’s armed forces have likely considered establishing military bases in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia.
The Indo-Pacific has become a cooking pot of security concerns, especially around the expansion of Chinese influence and power across the region.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who landed in Malaysia on Friday, said Australia’s relationships in the region were paramount to countering the “unprecedented rate” of military build up.
Senator Payne co-chaired the annual foreign minister’s meeting in Malaysia and met with the country’s leaders to discuss health security, climate change challenges and access to vaccinations.
The foreign minister’s trip includes visits to Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia to meet with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in Jakarta to discuss security in the Indo-Pacific region.
The meeting in Indonesia comes after concerns were raised over how the government handled the announcement of its new trilateral security partnership with the US and UK.
Key allies, including Indonesia, were kept in the dark about the AUKUS alliance and Australia’s plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines until the last minute.
But the leaking of the alliance to the press the night before its official announcement in September sent ripples through diplomatic wires as some foreign officials found out about the major security shake-up online.
Indonesia and Malaysia then raised concerns Australia could breach its nuclear non-proliferation obligations, an assertion which has been rejected by Australian officials.
China is trying to use the AUKUS announcement to rally southeast Asian nations against Australian and US interference, saying the acquisition of nuclear submarines would “create risks of nuclear proliferation and undermine regional peace and stability”.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a briefing last week Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and its cooperation with the US as part of AUKUS had “cold war undertones”.
The military power report revealed China continued to advance and expand its nuclear capabilities and could have up to 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1000 by 2030.