March 13, 2018 / 7:28 AM / in 3 months

Australia to stress international law in South China Sea dispute

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will on Tuesday hail the role of international law in settling regional conflicts, comments apparently aimed at bolstering Australian efforts to build a coalition against Chinese assertiveness.

FILE PHOTO: Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop talks during a news conference with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto (not pictured) in Budapest, Hungary, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Bishop, in a speech ahead of a special meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Sydney, will not name China but will argue that international law will stabilize a region strained by rival claims in the South China Sea.

“The rules-based order is designed to regulate behavior and rivalries of and between states, and ensure countries compete fairly and in a way that does not threaten others or destabilizes their region or the world,” Bishop will say in Sydney, according to a leaked draft of the speech seen by the Australian Financial Review.

“It places limitations on the extent to which countries use their economic or military power to impose unfair agreements on less powerful nations.”

China claims most of the South China Sea, an important trade route which is believed to contain large quantities of oil and natural gas, and has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and air strips.

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, all of which are members of ASEAN, and Taiwan also have claims in the sea.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally with no claim to the South China Sea, has long maintained its neutrality on the dispute to protect economic relationship with China.

But with Australia’s relations with China souring in recent months, Bishop’s comment underscore a new Australian tactic. [nL3N1O83M7]

“Australia is trying to get ASEAN on side with the notion that China is a rule-breaker that everyone would be better served by abiding by,” said Nick Bisley, professor of international relations at Melbourne’s La Trobe University.

“If it can get ASEAN to use that language, it will strengthen Australia’s position considerably.”

ASEAN and China in August begun talks to develop a code of conduct for the South China Sea, though a deal is unlikely before 2019, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said in February. [nL4N1PX1D2]

The issue of the South China Sea is set to dominate the unofficial agenda of a special three-day meeting of ASEAN countries and Australia beginning on Friday.

Officially, the summit will focus on fostering closer economic ties among the 10 members ASEAN and Australia, and countering the threat of Islamist militants returning to the region from the Middle East.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to travel to Sydney where she will hold bilateral talks with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is under pressure to publicly condemn the deaths and expulsion of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine State over recent months.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Robert Birsel

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