Home SemasaGlobal Keeping South China Sea free and open for ASEAN

Keeping South China Sea free and open for ASEAN

by Adrian David

MELBOURNE, 6 MARCH – The developments and tension across the Indo-Pacific – in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the Mekong subregion – are devastatingly threatening the sovereignty of its littoral nations.

Such a serious scenario, brought about by China’s fallout with the United States and the former’s growing regional assertiveness and disputed claims has pushed Australia to contribute additional funds to the tune of A$286.5 million (US$186.7 million) for maritime security for Asean nations, including the Mekong subregion.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong stressed that the countries in the region relied on oceans, seas and rivers for livelihoods and commerce, including free and open sea lanes in the South China Sea to bolster their economy through shared prosperity.

“Therefore, what happens in the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Strait, in the Mekong subregion and across the Indo-Pacific affects us all – including Australia.

“I quote (former Indonesian President) Joko Widodo who said that we also have the responsibility to lower the tension, to melt the ice, to create space for dialogue and to bridge the differences in the region,” Penny said in her keynote address on maritime cooperation at the ‘Asean-Australia Special Summit’ in Victoria.

The forum was co-hosted by Philippines’ secretary of foreign affairs Enrique Manalo.

Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines claim parts of the South China Sea, especially the Spratly’s archipelago (worth trillions dollars of oil and gas carbon deposits), while China claims almost in its entirety through its nine-dash maritime line.

Reminiscing Asean-Australia ties, Penny said that the relationship was forged 50 years ago through the visionary Aussie Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who recognised his country’s proximity with Southeast Asia.

“Whitlam recognised Asean was already central to managing the region’s challenges – and he could see that it would only become more central.

“He enthusiastically pursued engagement with Asean and soon Australia became the first non-member to establish formal relations.

“Whitlam knew that while much of our history was in Europe, our home and our future was in our region.

“He recognised the role Southeast Asia would play in Australia’s destiny, and in the destiny of the world,” said Penny.

She reiterated that the Asean-Australia formalisation was not just a truth that her country acknowledged but embraced, and shared a region and a future.

“We are bound by the geography that fate has chosen for us, and we are strengthened by the partnership we choose for ourselves.

“Our nations and people are enriched as we trade, succeed and thrive together with the benefit from the peace, stability and security we build.

“Our belief in shared success underpins Australia’s commitment to increased economic partnership,” said Penny.

She warned that although shared prosperity was an incentive to maintain peace, it was not enough to guarantee peace.

“The stakes are clear. We know that a major conflict in our region would be devastating to our communities and economies, as the terrible conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine have shown.

“So, we all have a responsibility to shape the region we want to share: peaceful, stable and prosperous.

“We need a balanced region where each country can pursue its own aspirations, where no country dominates and no country is dominated.

“Maintaining this character is a continuous process.

“It requires us all to nurture and protect agreed rules, uphold international law, prevent conflict and build strategic trust.

“This is more important than ever with the region’s character under challenge,” she warned.

She highlighted how claims and actions were inconsistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – which was the legal order for the seas and oceans.

“We face destabilising, provocative and coercive actions, including unsafe conduct at sea and in the air and militarisation of disputed features.

“We know that military power is expanding, but measures to constrain military conflict are not and there are few concrete mechanisms for averting it.

“These factors give rise to the most confronting circumstances in our region in decades,” Penny said.

She welcomed the Asean foreign ministers’ call for the need for dialogue, restraint and the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law; and the need for building trust and confidence which required transparency and restraint.

“It is important for regular dialogue between China and the United States.

“Australia supports this approach and we play our part in advocating peace.

“I have consistently reiterated US calls for open lines of communication with China and said it was in all of our interests for those overtures to be met, and welcome the resumption of leader-level and military-level dialogue.

“These are important steps on the path towards stability that the region has called for.

“We must also commit to preventive architecture to increase resilience and reduce the risk of conflict through misunderstanding or miscalculation,” she said, referring to a similar advice from Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Penny added that the situation required all stakeholders to shape habits of cooperation that sustained the character of their region.

“We must insist differences are managed through dialogue and not force; to insist that communication never be withheld as a punishment or offered as a reward.

“We want to support Asean states to ensure, collectively, we all have the practical tools we need to be able to rapidly and effectively deescalate tensions and crises,” she said.

Penny added that investments in deterrence and diplomacy contributed to build coalitions, foster assurance, reduce tensions and contributed to strategic balance.

“Australia is transparently investing in a capable military, defence industry, partnerships, interoperability, friendships and understanding to continue to be a reliable security partner for the region.

“Together, we show the high costs for anyone seeking to provoke conflict in the waters of Southeast Asia that are among the most strategic maritime domains in the world.

“We will continue to work with the region to protect and secure maritime and riverine resources and environments – whether to map coral reefs, prevent illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing or safeguard freshwater resources from climate change in the Mekong,” Penny said.

She added that Australia recognised the strength of Asean’s collective voice which resonated throughout the region when it spoke on its view of the importance of sovereignty and rules.

“While our region comprises different political systems, we share a common interest in maintaining open and transparent communication.

“Never underestimate the capacity of norms to underpin the character of a region,” she said.

Australia, the United Kingdom and US have forced a security pact known as AUKUS which Asean countries like the Philippines felt relieved.

Manalo said the future of the strategically important South China Sea would rely on diplomacy prevailing over the use of force.

“Australia and Asean are important players in this.

“The shared stewardship of the seas and oceans in the region behoves us to unite in preserving the primacy of international law so we can ensure equitable and sustainable outcomes for all,” said Manalo.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr was resolute on his countries’ position on the South China Sea amid rising tension with Beijing over their competing claims.

“I will not allow any attempt by any foreign power to take even one square inch of our sovereign territory.

“The challenges that we face may be formidable, but equally formidable is our resolve. We will not yield,” Marcos Jr reportedly addressed the Australian Parliament recently.

Marcos Jr is the son of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos who was overthrown in a popular uprising in 1986 and fled into exile in Hawaii. – airtimes.my

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