A JOINT statement of the Asean-Australia Special Summit signed by member heads of state aired the strongest position against aggressive acts in the South China Sea.
The group reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region,” said Dindo Manhit, president of the independent think tank Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute said.
This developed as the Chinese Navy was poised to carry out combat drills in the waterway also known as the West Philippine Sea, which China’s official newspaper said was part of its regular annual exercises.
However, the United States Navy also carried out a “freedom of navigation” China operation in the South China Sea on Friday, coming close to structures China has built there, US officials said.
“We emphasize the importance of non-militarization and the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may complicate the situation,” the Asean-Australia group said.
The declaration came at the end of the two-day special summit between Australia and the ten-member regional bloc, in which the Philippines was represented by Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.
President Rodrigo Duterte was the only head of state who missed the event.
“The declaration has raised the level of regional cooperation amidst a changing geopolitical environment where the Philippines is a major stakeholder,” said Manhit of the Manila-based think tank.
The regional bloc reaffirmed the need for states to pursue the peaceful resolutions of disputes, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
They also called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other claimant states in the South China Sea to comply with the relevant standards and recommended practices by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization.
“In this regard, we support the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety and look forward to an early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” the group said.
Short of an explicit reference to the Chinese militarization of the West Philippine Sea, Manhit said the signatories stressed the “importance of non-militarization and the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may complicate the situation.”
In the same event, Vietnam and Australia released a joint statement that established “strategic partnership” between the two countries.
“The Joint Statement on the Establishment of a Strategic Partnership between Australia and Vietnam shows how two nations with different political systems are able to build respect and shared interests that has become a model for bilateral cooperation that is aligned with the strong pronouncements of the Asean-Australia Special Summit,” said Manhit.
The partnership covers a wide range of areas, including political cooperation, economic development, defense and security, education, and culture, among others.
“Asean’s unequivocal support for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and non-militarization springs a new momentum for the government and a strong message against actions that run counter to building regional trust and confidence,” Manhit added
China claims most of the South China Sea, a key trade route and home to areas that are believed to hold large quantities of oil and natural gas.
Along with China, parts of the South China Sea are subject to competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
China routinely rejects criticism of its activities in the South China Sea, saying that as it is Chinese territory, it can do what it wants.