03/06/2024, 14.59
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South China Sea: Canberra, Beijing, and trade with Southeast Asia

The special summit between Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ended today. All countries in the region have very close economic ties with China and do not want to be dragged into the geopolitical dispute between China and the United States. However, Chinese provocations in disputed waters continue, with yet another clash involving Philippine ships.

Melbourne (AsiaNews) – Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a summit in Melbourne from 4 to 6 March to mark 50 years of partnership between the Oceanic country and the regional organisation.

The largest part of the 55-point declaration is dedicated to “safeguarding our region's security and stability," with several references to the South China Sea, where China once again interfered recently with a Philippine ship that was refuelling.

“We recognise the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity,” reads the Declaration. “We encourage all countries to avoid any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region.”

The Melbourne Declaration also refers to previous agreements signed in the early 2000s between China and ASEAN to foster mutual trust.

Southeast Asian countries (and Australia) have very close trade ties with China. For example, trade between ASEAN and China is expected to grow by US$ 616 billion over the next 10 years.

This is why ASEAN countries (which together constitute the world's fourth-largest economy) want to avoid being dragged into the geopolitical clash between China and the United States.

On the other hand, however, Beijing continues to exert pressure and reaffirm its demands.

Yesterday, the Philippines summoned China’s deputy chief of mission in Manila to protest China's "aggressive actions."

Chinese coast guard ships used water cannons against a Philippine ship that was refuelling at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, damaging the vessel and causing minor injuries to some crew members.

The "reckless" and "illegal" actions by China also led to the collision between the two ships, Philippine officials added.

President Ferdinand Marcos today tried to play down the controversy, saying that Chinese provocations are not a reason enough to invoke the mutual defence treaties signed with the United States.

The tensions in the disputed waters and the recurring incidents have not led China to change its position. In fact, China, through a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said that the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and its position on the disputed area is consistent and clear.

“We will properly manage differences with the countries concerned and fully and effectively implement them with ASEAN countries,” the spokesperson said.

To avoid irritating China, its main trading partner, Australia is trying to play an active role in economic matters, while delegating defence responsibility to the United States, as well as multilateral organisations, like the Quad and AUKUS.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese yesterday announced the creation of a US$ 1.3 billion fund to stimulate trade and investment.

"The government I lead has made it clear: more than any other region, Southeast Asia is where Australia’s future lies,” Mr Albanese announced at a meeting with various chief executives from Australia and Southeast Asia.

The Southeast Asia Investment Financing Facility will provide loans, guarantees and insurance for a range of projects, “particularly in support of the region’s clean energy transition and infrastructure development.”

In 2022, trade between Australia and ASEAN exceeded US$ 115 billion, while investment reached US$ 198 billion.

Canberra's goal is clear: exploit the economic potential of an emerging market such as Southeast Asia while avoiding direct confrontation with Beijing.

"We don't like what China does, but we're not going to put ourselves in harm's way,” said Nick Bisley, professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

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