Australia to stress international law in handling South China Sea disputes

Rules ‘designed to regulate behaviour and rivalries’, ensure fair competition, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop expected to say in speech to Asean members

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 9:32pm

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will on Tuesday hail the role of international law in settling regional conflicts, comments apparently aimed at bolstering Australian efforts to build a coalition against Chinese assertiveness.

In a speech ahead of a special meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Sydney, Bishop will not name China but will argue that international law will stabilise a region strained by rival claims in the South China Sea.

“The rules-based order is designed to regulate behaviour and rivalries of and between states, and ensure countries compete fairly and in a way that does not threaten others or destabilise their region or the world,” Bishop will say in Sydney, according to a leaked draft of the speech seen by Australian Financial Review.

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“It places limitations on the extent to which countries use their economic or military power to impose unfair agreements on less powerful nations.”

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, an important trade route which is believed to contain large quantities of oil and natural gas, and has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and air strips.

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, all of which are members of Asean, and self-ruled Taiwan also have claims in the sea.

Australia, a staunch US ally with no claim to the South China Sea, has long maintained its neutrality on the dispute to protect its economic relationship with China.

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But with relations between Canberra and Beijing souring in recent months, Bishop’s comments underscore a new Australian tactic.

“Australia is trying to get Asean on side with the notion that China is a rule-breaker,” said Nick Bisley, professor of international relations at Melbourne’s La Trobe University.

“If it can get Asean to use that language, it will strengthen Australia’s position considerably.”

Asean and China in August begun talks to develop a code of conduct for the South China Sea, though a deal is unlikely before 2019, Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in February.

The issue of the South China Sea is set to dominate the unofficial agenda of a special three-day meeting of Asean countries and Australia, which starts on Friday.

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Officially, the summit will focus on fostering closer economic ties among the 10 members of Asean and Australia, and countering the threat of Islamist militants returning to the region from the Middle East.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to travel to Sydney where she will hold bilateral talks with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is under pressure to publicly condemn the deaths and expulsion of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine State over recent months.