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Asean-Australia meeting ends with warning against actions that 'endanger peace'

By Jan van der Made with RFI
Australia AP - Hamish Blair
WED, 06 MAR 2024 LISTEN
AP - Hamish Blair

Leaders from Southeast Asia and Australia warned against actions that "endanger peace" in the South China Sea following fresh confrontations between Beijing and the Philippines in contested waters. France, another Pacific player, is concerned as well.

The Australian-Asean Special Summit celebrating 50 years of partnership ended on Tuesday.

According to a joint statement, the partnership will continue to "work together to promote an open, inclusive and transparent rules-based regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific region," in what is widely believed to be a coded warning against the spread of Chinese influence.

China claims large swaths of the South China Sea, disregarding international rules set by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) itself was inaugurated on 8 August 1967, with Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia as its founding members.

In its founding declaration, Asean describes itself as an organisation for economic cooperation with the additional task of  "promot[ing] regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law."

In reality, the cooperation grew out of a fear of communism. At the time the People's Republic of China was at the height of the Cultural Revolution, while the US was involved in a war against the Viet Cong in Vietnam and insurgencies in Laos and Cambodia.

According to Frank Frost, author of Australia and the origins of Asean, Australia's Asean membership was discussed, but the founding members thought Canberra was too close to the UK and the US which, in turn, could hamper the identity of the organisation. However, in March 1974 Asean accepted Australia as its first "dialogue partner".

Tensions with China

Today Asean's membership has grown to ten members, including Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. While relations with Beijing were at times cordial, recently, simmering tensions in the South China Sea threatened to boil over when Chinese boats in the Spratly Islands were accused of harassing Philippines vessels.

Beijing on Wednesday accused the United States of using the Philippines as a "pawn to stir up trouble in the South China Sea" as hostilities between the Asian nations escalate over their territorial dispute.

China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea as its own, ignoring legal precedents and competing claims from a host of Southeast Asian nations.

"We encourage all countries to avoid any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region," read a joint declaration hammered out between Asean members and Australia.

"We recognise the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and prosperity," the statement added.

The French position

Meanwhile, France, as a Pacific power with overseas territories New Caledonia, Wallis & Futuna, and French Polynesia, is interested in broadening cooperation with Asean. France currently employs some 8,000 military personnel on five bases in the region.

During a meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Malet in Paris in February, French President Emmanuel Macron "welcomed the strengthening between France and Asean" while France is strengthening its "Indo-Pacific Strategy," bringing it in line with Asean's own "Outlook on the Indo-Pacific" that specifically refers to "cooperation for peaceful settlement of disputes; promoting maritime safety and security, and freedom of navigation and overflight."

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Started: 02-07-2024 | Ends: 31-10-2024

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