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Australia, SE Asian nations call for restraint in South China Sea

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY — Australia and Southeast Asian nations ended a three-day summit on Wednesday calling for restraint in the contested South China Sea and a lasting ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

Australia hosted a summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Melbourne to mark the 50th anniversary of its ties to the bloc, even as differences remained across the 10 members on China’s plans to extend diplomatic and military presence in the region.

A joint statement by Australia and ASEAN called for “rules-based” order in the Indo Pacific, as Beijing looks to increase its presence in the South China Sea.

“We recognize the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity,” the statement said.

“We encourage all countries to avoid any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region.”

The statement comes as the Philippines on Tuesday summoned China’s deputy chief of mission in Manila to protest at what it called “aggressive actions” by Chinese naval forces against a resupply mission for Filipino troops stationed on a South China Sea shoal.

Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion worth of ship-borne commerce each year, and is a major source of tension with the Philippines.

Both countries have been locked in a territorial dispute despite a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration which found that China’s claims had no legal basis. Beijing rejects that ruling.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, during a press conference with Albanese on Monday, said there was a growing “China-phobia” in the West. In an interview published on Tuesday in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, Anwar claimed the risk of conflict in the South China Sea had been exaggerated.

The joint statement also reiterated concern over the “dire” humanitarian situation in Gaza, as well as calling for the release of hostages held in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

“We condemn attacks against all civilians and civilian infrastructure, leading to further deterioration of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza including restricted access to food, water, and other basic needs,” the statement said.

“We urge for an immediate and durable humanitarian ceasefire.”

ASEAN includes Muslim majority nations, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, while Australia is a strong backer of Israel, although it has previously called for a ceasefire and been critical of the level of casualties. — Reuters

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