Anthony Albanese
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese addressed leaders during the ASEAN summit in Melbourne. Image by Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

Albanese aligns Australia’s destiny with Southeast Asia

Rachael Ward March 6, 2024

China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific loomed large over the final day of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, as regional leaders gathered for closed-door talks.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia’s destiny was in Southeast Asia more than anywhere else in the world and he was concerned about any destabilising behaviour in the South China Sea.

ASEAN leaders endorsed a declaration stressing the need to maintain peace in the shipping passage, which is bound by the Indochinese Peninsula and islands of Taiwan, and cautioned against “unilateral actions” without mentioning China.

It also extended beyond the region, calling for an immediate and durable humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, the release of civilian hostages and condemned attacks against civilians.

The dispute over the South China Sea flared in recent days, with a Philippine official claiming four coast guard crew members were injured when a Chinese vessel used water cannons and dangerous manoeuvres.

“I am very concerned and Australia is concerned about any unsafe and destabilising behaviour in the South China Sea,” Mr Albanese told reporters on Wednesday.

“It is dangerous and it creates risks of miscalculation, which can then lead to escalation.”

Foreign Minister Penny Wong acknowledged differing views among ASEAN leaders on how best to deal with Chinese aggression, but said all were united on stability.

“Rather than thinking about what might or might not happen, we should focus on what we want to protect, what we want to ensure, what we want to assure in order to preserve peace, stability and prosperity,” she told ABC TV on Wednesday.

ASEAN leaders and foreign ministers gave no hint of any concern as they smiled and posed for group photos following close-doors discussions at Victoria’s Government House and photographs with koalas.

ASEAN leaders
 ASEAN leaders were all smiles as they posed for group photos in Melbourne. Image by Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS 

Mr Albanese on Wednesday outlined commitments worth $61.5 million to strengthen connections with Southeast Asia, including funding for a cultural centre, university scholarships, professional placements and co-operation on energy.

That’s in addition to other commitments during the summit including $2 billion to promote business ties and in excess of $277 million for international development, regional security and measures to combat climate change.

“More than any other part of the world, Southeast Asia is where Australia’s destiny lies,” Mr Albanese told ASEAN leaders.

“This is why we will continue to support your ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and ensure the stability and peace of our region.”

He said Australia was committed to upholding sovereignty, territorial integrity, equality and independence.

Srettha Thavisin
 Leaders including Thailand Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin enjoyed snaps with koalas. Image by David Crosling/AAP PHOTOS 

“The regional architecture, with ASEAN at its centre, is vital in pursuing these goals, and for promoting trust and transparency among our nations,” the prime minister said.

On Wednesday, Australia promised $36.7 million towards creating an ASEAN-Australia Centre in Canberra, $12.9 million on new ASEAN fellowships and $6.9 million to establish an ASEAN Centre for Climate Change in Brunei.

The package included English language training in Timor Leste as the small nation works towards joining the key regional bloc and new scholarships for emerging leaders to study in Australia.

Mr Albanese has held several bilateral meetings with ASEAN leaders during the summit, including with Laos Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone on Wednesday to ink a new agreement that includes $3 million towards dengue fever elimination research.