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ASEAN leaders, Australia to discuss South China Sea dispute

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By Roy Mabasa

The leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member-countries and Australia will be discussing the South China Sea dispute during the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit to be held in Sydney this week.

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Australian officials likewise confirmed that the territorial dispute involving China and several ASEAN member-countries including the Philippines and Vietnam will be mentioned in a joint communique. What they did not specify is the exact tone of the language to be used in the ASEAN communique, whether it will be restrained or be more aggressive.

Definitely, however, statements supporting freedom of navigation, resolving issues through international law and dialogue and support for the code of conduct are likely to be included in the ASEAN-Australia communique.

It is also expected that Australia will call on ASEAN nations vulnerable to tailored North Korean efforts to subvert sanctions to maintain maximum pressure.

Earlier, former Australian defense chief Dennis Richardson called on the Australian government to exercise the freedom of navigation rights of Australia in the South China Sea.

Richardson urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to take a stronger stand against excessive Chinese territorial claims by sailing within 12 nautical miles of Beijing’s man-made islands in the disputed waters.

However, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia already had a significant presence in the area.

Bishop said South China Sea is one the most important trading routes of Australia that is why they are exercising freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight in the region.

She said what they will not do is unilaterally provoke an increase in tensions in the South China Sea by sailing too close to the islands considering that there are a number of claimants, a number of disputed territories and that there are negotiations currently underway.

Aside from the South China Sea issue, counter-terrorism will also be a major focus during the summit.

Australia will sign an agreement with ASEAN leaders which will encourage Asian nations to more closely align their counter-terrorism laws amid concerns ­Islamic State is gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia.

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