The Myanmar Times
Australia worries about Rakhine, South China Sea
AUSTRALIA has expressed grave concern about security issues besetting Southeast Asia, especially the festering turmoil in Northern Rakhine in Myanmar and the niggling territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but it is prepared to level up cooperation with countries in the region.
Later in the month, Canberra was to host a two-day summit with leaders of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which groups, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia even hosted last month a group of ASEAN journalists for a familiarisation tour.
Although some analysts criticise Australia for its little involvement in resolving conflicts in the region in recent years, such as in the decadesold territorial disputes in the South China Sea and in the worsening problem in northern Rakhine, Australian officials said they are very concerned about the security of the sub-region.
“Security is crucial for Australia and we have to create a platform of strong security for the region,” an Australian diplomat said.
She said Australia understands the Rakhine crisis is a very complex issue that might be difficult for Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve by themselves, and her country is willing to help the Myanmar government in cooperation with other ASEAN countries to come out with a durable solution to the problem.
The recent outbreak of violence in the area, which was triggered by attacks by fighters of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on several government outposts, has forced over 650,000 Rakhine Muslims to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh since August.
“We are very concerned and we will work with Myanmar and other countries as we hope to come up with a solution,” she said. “The Kofi Annan report contains a lot of good recommendations to implement and was endorsed by the Myanmar government. We’d love to work with ASEAN and Myanmar to find ways to move forward on implementing them.”
On February 28, Australian Ambassador to Myanmar Nicholas Coppel met with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the administrative capital of Nay Pyi Taw ahead of her visit to Australia for the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit from March 17-18.
Coppel and the State Counsellor discussed the significance of the summit and how Australia can continue to help Myanmar address the country’s challenges, according to a Myanmar source.
The source said it is unlikely the Rakhine issue will be discussed formally during the summit in Sydney, where leaders of ASEAN countries will join two important events – a business summit and counter-terrorism conference.
Coppel also met with U Thaung Tun, minister for the Office of the Union Government and national security adviser, on Friday to discuss current challenges in Myanmar and preparations for the special summit.
U Thaung Tun will lead Myanmar’s delegation to the counter-terrorism conference that will underscore the fundamental importance of regional collaboration to address the shared challenges of terrorism and violent extremism.
Professor John Blaxland, director of the Australian National University, warned that the Rakhine crisis could spell more trouble for Myanmar as well as for the whole sub-region.
“This problem … is festering and in my view potentially is going to spin out of control and generate another wave of problems, potentially worse than the last time, because this time it must be infused with jihadist bands,” he said.
He said that predominantly Buddhist ASEAN countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand should engage Myanmar in finding a resolution with the help of Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Blaxland said Australia, Japan and India could join in the “collaborative mechanism” to address the issue.
Aside from the Rakhine crisis, the government is also concerned about the decades-old South China Sea territorial disputes
A senior government official said Australia is keenly awaiting developments in the code of conduct currently being discussed between China and the ASEAN.
Territories in the South China Sea are claimed in whole or part by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
He said Australia expects the signing of a legally binding code of conduct to reduce the tension in the area, which is considered the world’s busiest sea lane.
But beyond the security issues, the special summit signals a more intensified involvement of Australia in the sub-region.
It will be the first time Australia will host this summit since it became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974.
“We have a deep economic interest in Southeast Asia as Australia exports in the region are high,” an Australian official said. “Australia has to create an economic infrastructure that would be beneficial for both sides.”
“We want a special summit to work together to come out with ideas, initiatives, programmes that will take the partnership into the future,” he added.
ASEAN is the third largest trading partner of Australia, with an estimated trade value amounting to US$46.5 billion in 2016 (K62.26 trillion).
Kavi Chongkittavorn, a Bangkokbased ASEAN expert who used to be editor of The Myanmar Times, said Australia wants to forge closer ties with ASEAN as it has a huge market of over 645 million people.
“Australia wants to ensure peace and stability in the ASEAN region as it would benefit from the growing trade and economic cooperation with all members,” he said.
Kavi noted that while Australia might not have been involved in resolving high-profile conflicts in the region in recent years, it played an active role in promoting peace in Cambodia in the 1980s.
Now Australia wants to assist ASEAN with non-traditional threats such as cybersecurity and extremists and take on a much bigger role as economic and security partner of ASEAN, he said.