17.03.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Melbourne hosted the “ASEAN¬-Australia Summit”

The “ASEAN-Australia Summit” was held in Melbourne on 4-6 March

The “ASEAN-Australia Summit” was held in Melbourne on 4-6 March this year and was dubbed “special” because it was the 50th since its inception. It should be noted that Australia was the first external partner since the founding of this association in the late 1960s of the last century, which now includes all (except Papua New Guinea) of the countries of Southeast Asia.

The three days of events culminated in the adoption of the lengthy (11-page) “Melbourne Declaration – A Partnership for the Future”. In one way or another, the document touches on almost all the major issues (with some assessments) that have accompanied the development of the situation not only in Southeast Asia, but also in the Indo-Pacific region in general.

This document, and the very fact of holding the above-mentioned “Summit”, provides a good opportunity for further comment on the positioning of individual participants in the Melbourne meeting, both in the Indo-Pacific region as a whole and in the sub-region of Southeast Asia in particular. Such commentary is inevitably subjective, reflecting the author’s understanding of what (within a limited framework) deserves attention in the first place.

And the first thing that comes to mind is the absence of a representative from one of the ASEAN’s members, Myanmar. This obvious act of discrimination by the ASEAN leadership against its member is not the first since the spring of 2021, when the well-known events took place in that country. The difficult situation that has developed in that country since then has turned out to be one of the main items on the agenda of the “ASEAN-Australia Summit”.

It should be noted once again that the discussion of various internal problems of a member country (even in its absence) in the format of this association contradicts one of the original provisions on the basis of which it was established. These provisions were not violated until recently, when the factor of control over the development of the situation in Southeast Asia as a whole and in each of the countries of this sub-region became the focus of the escalating struggle between the two leading world powers, the United States and China.

The ASEAN leadership, balancing the forces created by Washington and Beijing, has to take into account some aspects of the interests of each of them. The fact that two years ago ASEAN was concerned about the situation in Myanmar should be seen as a concession to the interests of the former, which could not have been ignored at the meeting of Southeast Asian leaders with the Australian leadership. The latter is increasingly becoming one of the main proponents (along with Japan) of Washington’s policy in Southeast Asia.

In the final document of the “Summit”, paragraph 22 is devoted to the situation in Myanmar, but it is rather general and mainly calls on the different (conflicting) forces to stop the armed struggle by transferring it to the format of dialogue. According to the document’s authors, this should be facilitated by the implementation of the well-known “Five-Point Consensus” adopted by nine out of ten ASEAN members in April 2021. This excludes Myanmar, although its leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, was present at the event. It should also be noted that the process of resolving the situation in this country is being facilitated not so much (or not at all) by ASEAN, but by neighbouring China.

At the centre of all the events during the summit was once again the situation in the South China Sea, where the issue of overlapping territorial claims by the PRC on the one hand and several ASEAN member states on the other is becoming increasingly acute. Here too, the Philippine delegation was in the spotlight, as the country’s relations with the PRC began to develop in a particularly negative scenario following the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president in the spring of 2022.

This is evidenced by the increasing frequency of various types of conflict situations involving both border and fishing vessels of both countries in the very zones of suppressed claims. One of these occurred on the very day of the start of the ‘summit’. According to the Global Times, Chinese ships “took limited action with water cannons against Philippine vessels” that allegedly entered the PRC’s territorial waters. Meanwhile, the Philippine side reports four injured crew members of its vessels.

The passage of a law by the upper house of the Philippine parliament (which also took place during the summit) to strengthen claims over disputed territories was met with an expectedly negative reaction in China.

The general position of the country’s leadership in relation to the escalating confrontation with China was expressed by the same F. Marcos Jr. in his speech at the Lowy Institute International Policy in Australia. In general, the speech contained correct language towards the PRC (in particular, he spoke of the desire to pursue the bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Partnership), but it also contained passages about the determination to “defend against threats to territorial integrity”.

As for the “Melbourne Declaration”, paragraph 18 is devoted directly to the situation in the South China Sea in the most general terms. That is, in the style of “for all the good and against all the bad” and without identifying the bearers of either. In particular, it points to the need to maintain the negotiation process for the signing of the so-called Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. It should be noted that this process has been underway since 2002, when the relevant declaration was adopted at the “China-ASEAN Summit”.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that the list of international legal instruments to which all interested parties in the South China Sea (and the Indo-Pacific region in general) are invited to adhere makes no mention of the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the summer of 2016, which denied China’s right to claim about 80-90 per cent of the South China Sea. The request for such a judicial review was made in 2013 by the then President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III. However, the PRC leadership did not participate in the case and does not recognise its outcome.

“The Melbourne Declaration”, which addresses the situation in the South China Sea, falls under the heading of “ensuring security and stability in our region”. It is worth noting what the authors mean by “our region”. Judging by the content of this section, it is by no means just the South China Sea or even Southeast Asia. It touches on various issues in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Korean Peninsula, Gaza and even Ukraine.

And the very fact of the breadth of participants’ concerns at the Melbourne meeting reveals the ambitions not so much of the leadership of a rather amorphous and internally contradictory configuration (which is directly reflected in the “fuzzy” wording of the final document), which is ASEAN, as of Australia. Its current Labour government, which will come to power in May 2022, is largely in line with the rather radical changes in the country’s positioning in the foreign policy arena that became apparent in the second half of the rule of its predecessors from the conservative camp.

The phrase “fairly radical changes” is intended to reflect the shift in the policy of the S. Morrison government towards the end of the last decade from the initially (after the conservatives came to power in 2013) more or less balanced positioning of Australia in the field of forces created by the two major world powers in the entire Indo-Pacific region. By the end of 2019, the pendulum of Australia’s foreign policy preferences had clearly swung towards the US, which could only worsen the general atmosphere in its relations with the PRC.

Obviously, the trend set by the Morrison government over the past three years will continue into the future. This trend in Australia’s foreign policy course created by the government of S. Morrison over the next three years was so thoroughgoing that the current Labor government of Anthony Albanese was unable to deviate from it. Despite initial statements about the intention to reverse to some extent the above-mentioned swing of the Australian foreign policy pendulum.

In particular, Australia continues to actively participate in all AUKUS activities, while at the same time taking “emergency and unplanned” measures to enhance its own military capabilities. Canberra is developing comprehensive cooperation (including defence) with Tokyo, Washington’s closest ally. Incidentally, we note that there has recently been increased talk of the possibility of Japan joining AUKUS.

So, when the “Melbourne Declaration” refers (in paragraph 11) to the need for the Indo-Pacific region to “play by the rules”, involving regional organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), it is more in Australia’s interests than those of ASEAN members. It is also in the interests of the United States, which is behind it.

Finally, we reiterate that the ASEAN¬-Australia Summit in Melbourne was an important event in the multilateral (and multidimensional) political game that is currently unfolding in the Indo-Pacific region.


Vladimir TEREKHOV, an expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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