The Guardian • Issue #2091

ASEAN-Australia Special Summit

Deputy sheriff fails to deliver

Secretary-General of ASEAN, Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, met with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Australia, Senator the Honourable Penny Wong in Melbourne, 4 March 2024.

Secretary-General of ASEAN, Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, met with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Australia, Senator the Honourable Penny Wong in Melbourne, 4 March 2024. Photo: via asean.org

The four-day ASEAN-Australia Special Summit held in Melbourne from 4 - 6 March, ended with the Australian government failing to gain consensus around its aggressive stand towards China and Russia, and its position on Gaza. Australia received a well-deserved diplomatic slap in the face.

The meeting took place against a background of increased interest in and importance of the region for world trade and sea routes, and US imperialism’s increasing aggression. Australia failed to undermine the neutrality of ASEAN.

Acting as the US deputy sheriff, the government attempted to pit ASEAN against China and have it move into the US orbit. As ASEAN decisions are based on consensus, the divisions within ASEAN and with Australia’s draft saw a much more neutral outcome.

The Summit was a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Australia relations. The Association of South East Asian Nations has 10 members – Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Timor-Leste also participated.

The views of ASEAN’s members towards China, Russia, and Israel are diverse. The Philippines and Singapore line up with Australia on the question of China, whereas countries such as Cambodia and Laos are close to China. Singapore has indicated its preparedness to host AUKUS nuclear submarines. Malaysia and Indonesia with  predominantly Muslim populations, strongly support the Palestinian people.

ASEAN countries have a total population of 600 million people. In 2023, ASEAN was China’s largest export market with an annual value reaching AU$790 billion, surpassing the US which had been its largest in 2022.

One of Australia’s main aims at the Summit was to increase private business opportunities with ASEAN countries. It announced the allocation of AU$2 billion for a new South-East Asia Investment Financing Facility for trade and investment for infrastructure and development of renewable energy.

STATEMENT

A number of Australia’s proposals were deleted or watered down in the text of the Melbourne Declaration, as the final statement was called.

An original draft from Australia, hypocritically said, “We remain concerned about serious incidents in the area … that have the potential to erode trust and confidence, increase tensions and undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.”

Tensions in the South China Seas are being increased by Australia, the US, and the Philippines with military fly-overs and the presence of warships in the area.

Australia’s proposals to include “leaders are committed to maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait” and urging against “the threat of force or coercion” were also deleted from the final text.

Instead, the final text referred to recognition of the South China Sea as “a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity.” It went on to say, “We encourage all countries to avoid any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region.”

Australia also failed to have included the demand that China and the Philippines abide by a “legally binding” 2016 arbitration ruling – which found in favour of the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Nor did Australia’s attempts to include the “complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine” by Russia gain support. Instead, the statement mentioned previous United Nations resolutions deploring “in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.”

WONG

Foreign Minister Penny Wong trotted out the now well-worn attempts to characterise support for Palestinians as antisemitic.

“Some are intent on reproducing hatred and social conflict here – pushing absolutist agendas ahead of respect for peaceful disagreement that healthy democracy demands.

“We are a pluralist country, allowing for many different viewpoints, where we are united by respect for each other’s humanity and for each other’s right to live in peace.”

MALAYSIA

Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim responded to a question from ABC journalist Stephen Dziedzic about previous comments he had made about the China-phobia of the West. He said Malaysia has an open trading policy to encourage investments overseas from foreign countries.

“But we are [an] independent nation, we are fiercely independent. We do not want to be dictated [to] by any force. So, [while] we remain an important friend to the United States or Europe and here in Australia, they should not preclude us from being friendly to one of our important neighbours, precisely China. If they have problems with China, they should not impose it upon us. We do not have a problem with China. So, that’s why I referred to the issue of China-phobia in the West.”

Anwar did not hold back in expressing his country’s independence when delivering the Gareth Evans Oration at Australian National University while in Australia either.

“Unfortunately, the gut-wrenching tragedy that continues to unfold in the Gaza Strip has laid bare the self-serving nature of the much valued, much vaunted rules-based order,” Anwar said.

“The responses by the West to human suffering defies it. Why, for example, has the West been so vociferous, vehement, and unequivocal in the condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while remaining utterly silent on the relentless bloodletting inflicted on women and children in Gaza?”

Anwar said as long as countries in the Indo-Pacific remain “neutral” and “non-aligned” regarding the US and China, “well, I don’t foresee that much of a problem”.

“Our response to the rise of China will be a critical determinant on whether our region will be characterised by detente or discord,” Anwar said.

Judging by the stance and actions of the US’s deputy sheriff, the region is headed towards discord and war.

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