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Australia’s Nuclear Subs Will Be Welcome in Singapore, PM Says

(Bloomberg) — Australia’s future fleet of nuclear submarines will be welcome to dock in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, as differences over how to handle China’s burgeoning military footprint dominated the early stages of a special Asean summit in Melbourne.

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Lee, at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Tuesday, said Southeast Asian nations have different positions on Beijing’s assertive stance in the South China Sea due to individual security perspectives. He added that a code of conduct on the potential flashpoint — the negotiations for which have dragged on for two decades — is still in the works.

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As tensions in the region simmer, Lee thanked Australia for its close security relationship with Singapore, adding that “when the Australian new submarines are ready, we welcome them to visit Changi Naval Base in due course.”

The number of Chinese maritime militia vessels around key features across the South China Sea grew by 35% last year as Beijing continued to bolster its presence, according to data released by the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative last week.

Singapore is an outlier among Australia’s near neighbors in Asean in its early acceptance of Canberra’s plan to deploy nuclear-powered submarines. Indonesia and Malaysia were initially critical of the September 2021 agreement between Australia, the UK and US, known as Aukus, fearing it represented a further militarization of the region and increased proliferation risks.

Lee’s comments on the South China Sea come as members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have expressed contrasting views on how to handle Beijing during the summit. Both Vietnam and the Philippines repeatedly denounce the presence of Chinese ships in areas of the disputed waters they claim as their own. 

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on Monday, also flanked by Albanese, said he sought friendly relations with China, no matter how other countries might view its government. “If they have problems with China, they should not impose it upon us. We do not have a problem with China,” he said.

However, in a speech to the Lowy Institute on Monday evening, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. repeated his pledge to not yield “even a square inch” of territory in the South China Sea. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong opened the conference with a call to ensure free and open shipping lanes in the important waterway.

“What happens in the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Strait, in the Mekong subregion, across the Indo-Pacific, affects us all,” she said.

Every Asean leader, bar Myanmar, has flown in to commemorate 50 years of ties between Australia and the regional bloc.

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