Australia welcomes South-East Asia leaders with fresh maritime security funding

Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong (right) greets Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi (left) during the Australia-Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) summit in Melbourne on Monday, March 4, 2024. - AFP

SYDNEY (Reuters): Australia said on Monday Indo-Pacific and South-East Asian countries are facing serious defence threats as it set aside more funds for a maritime security pact with Asean countries during a summit with the South-East Asian bloc.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Australia would invest A$64 million ($41.8 million) over four years, including A$40 million in new funding, which would contribute to the security and prosperity of the region, consistent with the priorities of South-East Asian countries.

"We face destabilising, provocative and coercive actions including unsafe conduct at sea and in the air," Wong said in a speech at the summit, adding free and open sea lanes in the South China Sea was critical for the region's trade.

"What happens in the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Strait, in the Mekong subregion, across the Indo-Pacific, affects us all."

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than US$3 trillion of annual ship-borne commerce, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

But the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 said China's claims had no legal basis.

Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo said the South China Sea was of strategic importance that holds a promising future.

"However, such future will only be possible if nations in the region resolved to uphold cooperation, over confrontation and diplomacy over the use or the threat of use of force," Manalo said in his speech.

The Philippines is ramping up efforts to counter what it describes as China's "aggressive activities" in the South China Sea, which has also become a flashpoint for Chinese and U.S. tensions around naval operations.

Manalo said the arbitration is part of international law and nations in the region must stand firmly together in opposing actions that contradict or are inconsistent with it.

Australia last year said it would conduct more joint patrols with Philippines in the South China Sea.

Melbourne is hosting the summit from Monday to Wednesday to mark 50 years of Australia becoming the first external partner of Asean (US$1 = 1.5323 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Renju Jose and Praveen Menon in Sydney; Editing by Stephen Coates) - Reuters

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