Australia calls for greater ASEAN role in WPS disputes

MANILA, Feb. 20 (PNA) — Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Thursday urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to assume a more active role in ensuring a peaceful resolution to the territorial row in the West Philippines (South China) Sea.

Bishop called on the 10-member bloc, currently chaired by Myanmar, to play a “greater role” by engaging all claimants to the South China Sea, which involves four ASEAN members – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

ASEAN should make sure “its voice is heard in calling for the peaceful resolution of these matters,” Bishop said in a joint press conference in Manila with her Philippine counterpart, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.

“We see ASEAN as an important organization in terms of maintaining peace and stability and security in this region,” said Bishop, who is in the country for an official visit.

China and Taiwan are also involved in the disputes, which have long been feared as Asia’s next potential flashpoint for a major armed conflict.

Beijing virtually claims the whole of South China Sea, which is dotted by clusters of islands, cays, shoals and reefs and teem with rich fishing areas.

The vast sea — of which some parts fall within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone — was renamed West Philippine Sea by Manila. It is also said to be rich in oil and gas and is regarded as among the world’s most strategic and busiest waterways.

Australia, Bishop said, does not take sides on the claims, but it has a “legitimate interest” in preserving stability and peace in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, where a bulk of its exports and imports pass through.

“Australia takes no position on these claims but we urge all parties to resolve any disputes or any claims peacefully in accordance with a rules-based system, in accordance with international laws so that we can maintain a freedom of navigation and freedom of trade through those important waterways,” she said.

At least 60 percent of Australia’s exports and 40 percent of its imports pass through the South China Sea, Bishop said.

Bishop also urged the ASEAN to act fast and finalize a regional code of conduct, a proposed legally binding pact with China aimed at preventing the territorial conflicts from degenerating into armed confrontations by enacting rules that would discourage aggression.

“We believe that there should be consultation, there should be dialogue and in the case of the South China Sea, we support ASEAN’s objectives in concluding a code of conduct with China and we hope there will be some early progress on that code of conduct,” she said.

In the past, ASEAN had been criticized for failing to take stronger and rapid steps to ease the territorial conflicts in the resource-rich waters.

ASEAN members have been seen by analysts as having been divided in their political alliances between Asian powerhouse China and the United States, which has been trying to reassert its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Philippines and Vietnam, on the other hand, have separately increased their military engagements with Washington as they confronted China in fresh territorial incidents in the disputed waters.

Manila filed a case against China before an arbitral tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands to challenge China’s sweeping territorial assertion. China, which prefers to deal with other claimants one to one, opposed Manila’s case, branding it as baseless and lacking in legal merit.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Del Rosario stressed the importance of seeking a clarification of entitlement of all parties involved in the disputes as this affects other countries that use the sealanes for trade.

“It is a mechanism that is within the ambit of international law and we are utilizing this mechanism to help in terms of solving these disputes for us,” Del Rosario said.

The Philippines, Del Rosario said, will submit its memorial or legal arguments to the tribunal on March 30. (PNA)