Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr on Friday urged Asian nations at odds over disputed islands in the South China and East China seas to find a way to draw up resource-sharing pacts.
Australia has remained neutral amid tensions between China and its regional neighbours, including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
But Carr told a Washington think-tank that “60 or 70 per cent of our merchandise trade goes through the South China Sea and therefore we have interest in the peaceful resolution of these disputes.”
Beijing has grown increasingly assertive in recent years in claiming islands and waters even without effective control of them -- in some cases hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland and close to rival claimants’ coasts.
Tensions have spiked amid hopes that some of the underwater areas might contain a wealth of oil and gas.
China-Japan ties have especially soured as the two sides spar over disputed islands in the East China Sea, which Tokyo controls as the Senkakus but Beijing claims as the Diaoyus.
Manila and Beijing are caught in a standoff that began in April last year in waters around the Scarborough Shoal, when Chinese ships prevented the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen.
Carr told the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the tensions were damaging the region, and suggested the complex sovereignty claims should be put to one side in favour of drawing up resource-sharing agreements.
There were at least three precedents for such a deal, including one between Thailand and Malaysia reached in 1990 that could act as a model of future pacts between Asian rivals.
It would be a way of “keeping one dominating narrative on the front page of the world’s media out of Southeast Asia -- economic growth and social improvement,” Carr said.
“I want that to be the great narrative out of this region, not an alternative narrative, tensions and disputes, battles over sovereignty, people not investing in this region because they think it could flare into war.”