Australian foreign minister: We want a region where rules, norms apply

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 17) — Australia on Wednesday emphasized the need for a stable and prosperous region where rules are followed amid rising tensions in the West Philippine Sea.

“We want a region where norms and rules continue to apply. We don't want a region which is dominated to an extent where other countries cannot make their own decisions,” Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong told CNN Philippines’ The Source.

This was her response when asked about the conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

Australia, along with the United States and Japan, expressed support for Manila after the incident early this year involving a Chinese vessel that allegedly pointed military grade laser at a Philippine boat near Ayungin Shoal.

Last month, a Chinese coast guard ship also blocked a Philippine vessel on sovereignty patrol near Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal), causing a near-collision amid Beijing’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

An international arbitral tribunal in 2016 largely ruled in favor of the Philippines in its dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea. It also invalidated Beijing's sweeping claims in the South China Sea — a ruling China continues to reject.

“We all want a region in which rules ameliorate the exercise of power and it is through that that countries can maintain their sovereignty and their capacity to make their own decisions,” Wong said.

Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez said early this month that possible joint patrols with the US and Australia in the South China Sea may happen by the third quarter of 2023. 

Prior to this, Australia confirmed talks on possible joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea, a part of the larger South China Sea which Beijing claims almost entirely. 

Wong said Australia wants to “explore with you more opportunities for partnership, whether they are via formal agreements, or via exercises, or via informal cooperation or dialogue.”

It is important for countries to recognize their roles and work together during this time when there is a “competition between great powers and there is a lot of disruption,” she added.

“The region we want, stable, secure, prosperous… that doesn’t happen just because we hope for it. It happens because we act, we do something about it,” she pointed out.

In another interview, geopolitical expert Don McLain Gill said it is important for parties involved to expedite the trilateral agreement.

“The need for such a trilateral is definitely significant. We need to expedite this but that will depend on the willingness of parties involved to negotiate their interests and terms,” he said.

Whatever the result will be, Gill noted that countries should expect a reaction from China “because of its narrowly defined ambitions.”

The Philippines should prioritize its security by opening its channels of communication, he added.