Maritime security on Abbott’s EAS agenda

Prime Minister Tony Abbott went to the East Asia Summit prepared to defend the freedom to navigate the South China Sea.

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But he’s had to apply the principle closer to home.

The ASEAN East Asia Summit, held in Myanmar’s capital, was wedged in the middle of a week of summits that ends with Australia playing host to the G20 in Brisbane.

It was a forum for Mr Abbott to highlight Australian commitment to security in the region at a time of territorial tensions, and a new terror threat from Islamic State fighters.

But attention on four Russian warships lurking north of Australia, perceived as a show of force after Mr Abbott confronted Vladimir Putin over the MH17 crash, had him considering waters closer to home.

“If Australia, the United States and others expect, indeed demand, the right of passage for naval vessels in Asia, obviously we have to accept the right of passage for military or naval vessels in the Pacific,” he told reporters before the summit.

The prime minister downplayed any link between the naval exercise and the stern talk this week that followed his promise to “shirtfront” the Russian president.

Mr Abbott returns to Australia after about 24 hours in Myanmar, ready to play host to many of the same world leaders at the G20.

The ninth EAS brought together the 10 ASEAN countries with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the US and Russia, as China and its neighbours row over competing claims in the South China Sea.

Besides maritime security, terrorism and the Ebola crisis were also on the agenda.

An agreement was made for Australia’s ACCC to assist competition authorities in ASEAN countries to address anti-competitive conduct like cartels.

Australia will invest $10 million in the Asian Development Bank’s Mekong Business Initiative, developing the private sector in Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, and committed to rolling out its New Colombo Plan to more ASEAN destinations.

Australia’s 40-year partnership with ASEAN was commemorated on Wednesday night, with Mr Abbott announcing a new Australia-ASEAN council to deepen engagement in the region.

The new council would strengthen people-to-people links, he said, noting the rising influence and prosperity of ASEAN countries.

“I’d like to think Australia has played its part in the advancement of the region.”

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, chaired ASEAN as concern grows about its reform backsliding.

Mr Abbott met both President Thien Sein and opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi – who remains barred from running for president in next year’s elections, a major test for its democracy.