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ASEAN, Australia decry actions that ‘endanger peace’ in South China Sea

MELBOURNE (AFP) Southeast Asian and Australian leaders on Wednesday warned against actions that “endanger peace” in the South China Sea.

Simmering tensions in the trade corridor threatened to boil over earlier this week, when Chinese boats in the Spratly Islands were accused of hounding Philippines vessels.

China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, competing claims from a host of Southeast Asian nations.

The festering dispute poses one of the region’s most vexing security challenges, looming large during a three-day summit between Australia and the 10-nation ASEAN bloc.

“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.

(L-R) ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Manet, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, Laos’ Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, Victoria’s Governor Margaret Gardner, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, and East Timor’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao pose for a family photo at Government House during the 50th ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne on March 6, 2024. PHOTO: AFP

As the summit kicked off on Monday morning, Philippine foreign minister Enrique Manalo delivered a simple request to Beijing: “Stop harassing us”.

The following day, Chinese coast guard boats were accused of harassing a flotilla of Philippine ships sailing a resupply mission.

The Chinese vessels were involved in two separate collisions, the Philippines coast guard said, and blasted one of the resupply boats with a powerful water cannon.

Bound to act by consensus, the ASEAN forum has long struggled to make inroads on the overlapping claims staked throughout the South China Sea.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (C) addresses the Leaders’ Plenary during the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Melbourne on March 6, 2024. PHOTO: AFP

But the fraught atmosphere hanging over the region has nations such as the Philippines now pushing for the bloc to take a firmer stance.

Close United States ally Australia has proven increasingly willing to speak out against China.

“We need to make sure that activity in the South China Sea alleviates any tensions and doesn’t add to it,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters at the summit.

Gaza ceasefire 

 

ASEAN leaders and Australia also threw their weight behind a renewed international push to secure a ceasefire in Gaza, a thorny issue that divided opinions behind closed doors.

“We urge for an immediate and durable humanitarian ceasefire,” said the leaders of 11 nations after days of diplomatic wrangling over the text.

With the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan around the corner, the United States and a growing list of nations have been stepping up efforts to secure some kind of pause in fighting.

Singapore had baulked at an earlier suggestion the statement condemn “the use of starvation” in the Gaza Strip, language that would have infuriated Israel.

Diplomats also argued over whether the statement should call for a total ceasefire — or a perhaps more temporary “humanitarian” pause.

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