Controversy over AUKUS pact overhyped, says UK armed forces minister

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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Britain's armed forces minister James Heappey on Thursday said there has been an "overhyping" of controversy over a new trilateral security pact between Australia, the United States and Britain.

The alliance, known as AUKUS, will see Australia acquiring technology to deploy nuclear-powered submarines and is widely seen as a response to Chinese militarisation in the region, particularly in the strategically important South China Sea.

The plan has divided Southeast Asian countries, with Indonesia and Malaysia https://reut.rs/3E4CYzE warning that it could lead to an arms race https://reut.rs/3nic5kT among rival superpowers. The Philippines, a U.S. defence ally, has backed the pact https://reut.rs/3zxeSKQ.

China has said the AUKUS plan risks severely damaging regional peace and stability. The alliance has also sparked a row with France, after Australia backed out of a submarine deal with Paris in favour of AUKUS.

Heappey said AUKUS was not intended to challenge others, saying Australia had simply made a decision to join a long-standing technology-sharing partnership between Britain and the United States.

"There has been a lot of, sort of overhyping of AUKUS," he told reporters at a Kuala Lumpur event celebrating the 50th anniversary of a five-way defence pact between Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia.

"It doesn't in any way reflect any sort of reduction in our friendship with our great colleagues and allies in Paris. It doesn't in any way represent a challenge in your part of the world."

At the same event, Australian defence minister, Peter Dutton, said AUKUS would not change the country's security strategy going forward, but will allow it to ensure it remains a reliable partner in the region.

"We're not somebody who interferes with the operations of other nations. We are a country which is forthright, and we love providing peace in our region, and that's at the centre of our friendship here," he said.

Speaking in Jakarta during a visit this week to Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, Derek Chollet, Counselor of the U.S. State Department, said AUKUS did not undermine the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In a teleconference on Thursday, he said AUKUS was not a threat to peace and more U.S. engagement in the region was positive, because a free and open Indo-Pacific was critical to security and prosperity.

He also said Australia "does not, and will not use nuclear weapons", which is why the trilateral alliance works.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Additional reporting by Kate Lamb in Sydney; Editing by Martin Petty and John Geddie)

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