Australia and the ASEAN bloc agreed during a weekend summit in Sydney to bolster the fight against terrorism and maintain efforts to keep regional peace amid territorial disputes, officials said Monday.
The special meeting between host Australia and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was supposed to focus more on trade, but longstanding overlapping territorial claims between China and several ASEAN countries also took center stage, according to regional diplomats.
“We unequivocally condemn in the strongest terms terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” said a joint statement issued at the end of the summit on Sunday.
“We reiterate our commitment to work together even more closely to enhance regional cooperation to counter terrorism, including to prevent and suppress the flow of foreign terrorist fighters in our region,” the statement said.
South China Sea
Manila’s foreign secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, stood in for President Rodrigo Duterte in Sydney. He cautioned Australia against pushing the Philippines to be more confrontational with China by enforcing an international arbitration court’s ruling in 2016 that rejected Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea.
“It is easy to tell us to enforce the decision, but there is no enforcement mechanism,” Cayetano said. “We understand the position of our allies, (but) our allies should also understand our position.”
Duterte went to great lengths to appease China, which was angered when, in 2013, his predecessor filed the Philippines’ case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The court ruled in favor of Manila, but China ignored the decision.
China claims most of the South China Sea on historical grounds, including areas near the shores of smaller neighbors.
The Philippines and several other ASEAN countries – Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam – claim parts of the strategic and mineral-rich sea region, as do China and Taiwan.
Australia and the United States have been among Manila’s most vocal allies calling for enforcement of the 2016 ruling. But Cayetano warned that China could push back in a strong way.
Cayetano said there was “potential to have an arms race because if you have more navy ships there, then it will be normal for China to want to have more islands or defenses further from the shore.”
Despite the ruling and earlier agreements to halt all construction activities, China has continued with its territorial expansion and militarization of islands it already controls in the sea region.
The joint statement said all parties had agreed to a “peaceful resolution” of all disputes and to exercise self-restraint in solving differences.
All parties pledged to solve problems “without resorting to the threat or use of force in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, and the rules-based regional and international order,” the statement said.
On the counter-terrorist front, Australia and ASEAN agreed to align anti-terrorism laws and improve efforts to combat terror financing.
The Philippines, which last year defeated Islamic State-linked militants who had taken over the southern city of Marawi, thanked Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull for extending crucial help.
Australia and the U.S. had deployed drones and assisted Filipino forces on the ground by providing intelligence help that contributed to the defeat of the militants after a five-month battle.
“We had very good discussions with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull where we both reaffirmed, among others, our desire to strengthen our cooperation in the fight against violent extremism,” Cayetano said after meeting Turnbull on the sidelines of the summit.
“Prime Minister Turnbull has reiterated Australia’s commitment to help us with counter-terrorism and asked us what they can do to help in the rebuilding of Marawi,” Cayetano said, adding that Australia had been providing the military with counter-terrorism training, including in urban warfare.
Cayetano said ongoing cooperation was needed to blunt what he claimed was ongoing recruitment efforts by the militants inspired by Islamic State, who had escaped from Marawi and joined local armed groups in Mindanao island.
North Korea, Rohingya crisis
In other regional security matters, Australia and ASEAN reiterated their call for a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.”
”We have grave concerns about the escalation of tensions in the Korean Peninsula, including the DPRK’s (North Korea’s) nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which threaten regional and global peace and security,” the statement said.
The meeting in Sydney was the first time that Australia hosted a summit with ASEAN Leaders.
On Friday, Turnbull told reporters that it was up to ASEAN whether Australia should be allowed to join the group.
His remarks came after Indonesian President Joko Widodo said it was "a good idea" for Canberra to join the 10-member grouping.
Australia was “really honored and touched by the warmth” of the Indonesian’s leader’s remarks, “ASEAN matters are a matter for ASEAN,” Turnbull said.
The issue of the Rohingya refugee crisis was also discussed at the summit, with de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi reaching out for help from fellow Southeast Asian leaders, according to Philippine diplomats.
Turnbull said the Myanmar leader sought support from ASEAN “to provide help from a humanitarian and capacity building point of view.”
More than 670,000 ethnic Rohingya fled Myanmar for Bangladesh after the military launched a brutal crackdown in northern Rakhine State following attacks on police and army outposts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgents in August 2017.
Meanwhile, during a speech at the summit, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, warned that the “suffering” and “displacement” of Rohingya minorities had made them vulnerable to radicalization by extremist groups.
“We must be vigilant and increase our collaboration, because the collapse of Daesh core territories in Iraq and Syria has forced it to go underground and re-emerge elsewhere, especially in crisis zones where it could grow and operate,” Najib said, using another name for Islamic State.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.