• Kyodo

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday sought understanding from Southeast Asian nations on a security pact, known as AUKUS, under which Canberra will obtain nuclear submarines, stressing that it does not aim to acquire nuclear weapons.

Speaking at the virtual summit between Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Morrison attempted to allay concerns that the AUKUS security partnership of Australia, Britain and the United States could spark a nuclear arms race in the region.

"AUKUS does not change Australia's deep, long-standing commitment to nuclear non-proliferation — Australia does not want and will not seek nuclear weapons, as I've assured all ASEAN members," Morrison told the leaders of the group.

His remarks came as some ASEAN members have voiced worries about the security pact, which paved the way for Canberra to obtain nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and Britain and join a handful of countries that operate them.

The prime minister said, "AUKUS does not change Australia's commitment to ASEAN or the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, it reinforces it," reassuring that Australia's commitments to the regional group are stronger than ever.

At the summit, ASEAN leaders agreed to establish a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between ASEAN and Australia, the prime minister confirmed in a joint statement with Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

"This milestone underscores Australia's commitment to ASEAN's central role in the Indo-Pacific and positions our partnership for the future," the statement said.

To mark the enhanced relationship, Australia will invest AU$154 million ($115.7 million) into cooperation with ASEAN on initiatives such as scholarships and joint projects in the region tackling health security, energy security and promoting the circular economy, among other issues.

In his speech at the summit, Morrison also said Australia will donate at least another 10 million additional COVID-19 vaccines to Southeast Asian countries and contribute AU$124 million to fund joint projects in the region.

The assistance was unveiled as Canberra seeks to elevate its partnership with ASEAN nations to a "comprehensive strategic partnership," with Morrison touting Australia and ASEAN as "natural partners at the center of the Indo-Pacific."

ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The Australia-ASEAN summit, like other summits of the regional group this week, was held without a representative from Myanmar, as its military leader was excluded for not cooperating with other member countries over their assistance to solve the political turmoil in that country.

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