Southeast Asian leaders call for South China Sea disputes to be resolved without threats or force

ASEAN leaders urge peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes
ASEAN leaders urge peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes
ASEAN leaders urge peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes

Melbourne | Australia's prime minister expressed concerns on Wednesday over “unsafe and destabilising behaviour” in the South China Sea, citing the collision between Chinese and Philippine ships the previous day.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's remarks came as his country wrapped up a three-day summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that failed to explicitly call China out over a series of incidents in the disputed waters.

Instead, ASEAN leaders urged for disputes to be resolved through dialogue rather than threats, a day after Chinese and Philippine coast guard vessels collided near a disputed shoal in the South China Sea and four Filipino crew members were injured in the confrontations.

Chinese and Philippines officials traded blame for the incident. The disputed area has been site of several tense skirmishes between Chinese and Philippine coast guard ships last year.

Albanese, who co-chaired the summit with Laos Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, said Tuesday's clash was concerning for Australia.

“It is dangerous and it creates risks of miscalculation, which can then lead to escalation,” he said.

Australia had backed the Philippines' push to have the ASEAN declaration adopted at the end of summit cite a 2016 arbitration ruling in The Hague, Netherlands, that invalidated Beijing's vast territorial claims in the South China Sea, which conflict with the claims of several ASEAN states. China did not accept the ruling.

The Melbourne Declaration, released late Wednesday, did not mention the 2016 ruling. The summit was held in the Australian city to mark 50 years since Australia became the first external ASEAN partner.

The declaration called for peaceful resolution of disputes through legal and diplomatic processes “without resorting to the threat or use of force” in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“We encourage all countries to avoid any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region,” it said.

Albanese said compromises had to made to find words that ASEAN leaders at the summit could agree on.

“There is a general recognition that we need to make sure that activity in the South China Sea alleviates any tension and doesn't add to it,” Albanese said.

Deakin University Southeast Asia expert Damien Kingsbury said the declaration's failure to explicitly mention China was a nod to countries that are close to Beijing — Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar — and also to Malaysia's more conciliatory approach to the Chinese.

It's “a veiled criticism of China, which is about as strong as consensus would allow,” Kingsbury said.

Leaders agreed at an ASEAN summit in Indonesia last September to accelerate a negotiation process with China with a goal of finalizing a South China Sea code of conduct within three years. Such a code would aim to prevent risky and provocative behaviour.

That summit was joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the longest serving ASEAN leader after Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, said on Tuesday that finalising that code would take some time with difficult issues relating yet to be resolved.

The ongoing violence and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, an ASEAN state where a military junta seized control in 2021, have also loomed over the summit, with the declaration saying the leaders “strongly condemn the continued acts of violence." Myanmar was officially excluded from the Melbourne gathering. However, neither the Australian government nor the Myanmar Embassy in Australia would comment on reports that Myanmar was still represented at the summit by Australia-based diplomat Thet Tun.

Around 200 protesters had demonstrated outside the summit on Monday against any Myanmar representative being present.

East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão also attended the summit as an official observer after ASEAN agreed in principle to admit Asia's newest country.

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