By Ain Bandial
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday stressed to Southeast Asian leaders his country’s strong opposition to challenges to a free and open maritime order, underscoring regional concerns about China’s growing military clout.
Kishida took part in a virtual summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who earlier discussed concerns about militarisation and confrontation in the South China Sea and called for the conclusion of an ASEAN-China code of conduct “consistent with international law”.
U.S. President Joe Biden will join the virtual East Asia Summit later on Wednesday, with leaders of China, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and South Korea, Japan and ASEAN members.
Southeast Asia has become a strategic battleground in the rivalry between the United States and China, with Washington and its allies stepping up patrols to challenge Beijing’s vast maritime fleet, which it deploys to buttress its claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
An international arbitration tribunal in 2016 invalidated China’s claims, which overlap with Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei.
A trilateral security pact agreed last month between the United States, Britain and Australia, under which Australia will get access to nuclear-powered submarines, has added to fears of an arms race taking shape in Southeast Asia.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Wednesday said he was concerned the agreement, known as AUKUS “could spark rivalry in the region”, according to his foreign minister, Retno Marsudi.
The Philippines has backed AUKUS but its president, Rodrigo Duterte, on Wednesday said it “must complement and not complicate our working methods for cooperation.”
The leaders’ remarks were made a meeting between ASEAN and Australia, whose prime minister, Scott Morrison, proposed a strengthening of relations to the level of comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP), which would make it the first country to agree such a deal with ASEAN.
Morrison also sought to reassure ASEAN that AUKUS did not mean a pursuit of nuclear arms and was not a security threat.
“AUKUS adds to our network of partnerships that support regional stability and security,” he said.
A day earlier, ASEAN addressed another burning issue in Southeast Asia, the ongoing crisis in Myanmar following a coup eight months ago. ASEAN chair Brunei said they reiterated a call for special envoy Erywan Yusof to visit the country as mediator “with full access to all parties concerned”.
Myanmar was not represented at the summit, as ASEAN had snubbed the leader of the coup, Min Aung Hlaing, for his failure to follow an agreed peace process, and the junta refused the bloc’s offer to send an alternative representative.
Despite the acrimony of Myanmar’s no-show, ASEAN chair Brunei took a conciliatory tone in its summit statement.
“Myanmar needs both time and political space to deal with its many and complex challenges,” it said.
(Additional reporting by Stanley Widianto in Jakarta; Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Colin Packham in Canberra; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)
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