ASEAN, Australia elevate strategic ties amid South China Sea tensions

Beijing is still waiting to hear from the Southeast Asian bloc about upgrading its own relationship.
2021.10.27
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ASEAN, Australia elevate strategic ties amid South China Sea tensions Australian prime minister Scott Morrison attends the Australia-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit via a video link from Parliament House in Canberra, Oct. 27, 2021.
Handout: Australian Prime Minister's Office via AFP

Indo-Pacific players Australia and ASEAN agreed to upgrade their ties to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” the regional bloc’s chair said Wednesday, announcing the type of enhanced relationship with the grouping that China has been coveting since last year.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Australia elevated their relationship a month after some of the bloc’s members criticized the signing of the AUKUS pact, by which Washington and London will give Canberra technology for building nuclear-powered submarines.

Brunei, this year’s holder of ASEAN’s rotating chair, declared in a chairman’s statement that the two sides were now moving beyond a mere strategic relationship.

“We agreed to establish a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between ASEAN and Australia that is meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial,” the ASEAN chair said.

Australia and ASEAN first established a bilateral dialogue in 1974. 

“We were pleased with the steady progress in enhancing ASEAN-Australia Dialogue relations over the past 47 years, including in the implementation of the Plan of Action to Implement the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Partnership,” the ASEAN chair said.

Before Brunei issued the statement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke about the comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) as he led his country’s delegation in the inaugural ASEAN-Australia summit on Wednesday.

Canberra, he said, had proposed upgrading ties and “should ASEAN decide to agree to CSP, Australia is, of course, ready.”

“A CSP, though, is more than just a label. We will back it with substance that positions our partnership to address complex challenges in the future,” Morrison told his ASEAN counterparts.

Canberra will also provide A$124 million (U.S. $93.1 million) to fund projects, jointly identified by ASEAN and Australia, to address emerging challenges, he added. These include COVID-19 recovery, terrorism, transnational crime, energy security, and the transition to lower emissions technology.

China vis-a-vis ASEAN

Meanwhile, Beijing is still waiting to hear from ASEAN about China’s wish to elevate its partnership with the bloc, as it stated last year and reiterated in June. The Asian superpower is competing with the United States – and now also with the United Kingdom and Australia – to wield influence in a region that has become a theater in global geopolitics.

“China’s desire to upgrade bilateral relations reflects ASEAN’s long-standing economic and strategic importance to Beijing,” the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore think-tank, noted in an article it published last month.

At Tuesday’s China-ASEAN Summit, Beijing did not talk about upgrading relations. But it did sweeten the pot by offering “to jointly hold a summit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the China-ASEAN dialogue relationship,” which President Xi Jinping may attend, according to some reports.

China’s proposal so far has been met with “a polite muted response” from ASEAN, said the article in the ISEAS publication.

“ASEAN fears that adopting it may be construed as taking sides” against Washington, it said, adding that any political or security relationship between China and the bloc would be subject to changing push-and-pull tensions to do with the South China Sea.

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The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Waller (SSG 75), a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, is seen in Sydney Harbor on Nov. 2, 2016. [AFP]

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Beijing is militarizing the South China Sea, which it considers its backyard.

It has stepped up its unabashed incursions into other claimant nations’ exclusive economic zones, used its maritime militia to harass fishermen in waters claimed by other countries and parked its survey ships in oil-rich zones in others’ waters.

Now, in the face of Washington’s accelerated freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, Beijing is looking for allies in Southeast Asia, but the region’s nations are wary despite China’s financial clout.

On Wednesday, during his address to the East Asia Summit, U.S. President Joe Biden “reiterated the U.S. commitment to the international rules-based order and expressed concern over threats to that order.”

“The United States will continue to stand with allies and partners in support of democracy, human rights, rule of law, and freedom of the seas,” Biden said, according to a White House statement.

The East Asia Summit is an Indo-Pacific dialogue forum made up of the 10 ASEAN member-states, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Russia.  

AUKUS and ASEAN

None of these issues was a factor between ASEAN and Australia, although the trilateral AUKUS pact has been a source of heartburn for some of the bloc’s member-states.

Neither ASEAN nor Australia’s Morrison shied away from addressing the pact between Australia, the U.S., and U.K. that was announced on Sept. 15. 

AUKUS is thought to be designed to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea.

AUKUS’s three maritime democracies did not mention China. They said the pact would enable them to strengthen support for each other’s security and defense interests and “help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

But Indonesia and Malaysia were unhappy about the pact, saying it would foster an arms race – perhaps a nuclear one – in Southeast Asia. The Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam were more upbeat about AUKUS. ASEAN, which works by consensus, could not agree on a joint statement about the pact.

PM Morrison and other top Australian officials spoke over the phone and met in person with ASEAN leaders and ministers, to reassure them that Canberra was aware of its commitment on nuclear non-proliferation and believed in ASEAN centrality in Southeast Asia.

On Wednesday, the ASEAN chair’s statement said the bloc welcomed “Australia’s continued support and reaffirmation for ASEAN centrality” and its commitment to regional peace, stability, and security.

Among individual ASEAN member-states, Indonesia reiterated its concern but also said it fully supported the new, upgraded relationship that the bloc has forged with Australia.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said arrangements such as AUKUS must “not complicate our working methods for cooperation.”

For his part, Australia’s Morrison told ASEAN that AUKUS reinforces the backing that Canberra has for an ASEAN-led regional architecture.

“AUKUS adds to our network of partnerships that support regional stability and security,” he said Wednesday.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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