MANILA (UPDATE) — President Rodrigo Duterte this week urged fellow world leaders to ensure that a new trilateral security pact "does not hinder nor complicate" cooperation in Southeast Asia, which has become a battleground in the rivalry between the US and China.
The US and its allies have been stepping up patrols to challenge Beijing's vast maritime fleet, which it deploys to buttress its claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
Last month, the United States, Britain and Australia signed the AUKUS pact, under which Australia will get access to nuclear-powered submarines. This has angered China and added to fears of an arms race taking shape in Southeast Asia.
The pact “is a development that will certainly impact the region’s security architecture,” Duterte said during the 16th East Asia Summit on Wednesday.
“These arrangements must be a force for good, advance the rule of law, and support ASEAN centrality in our security mechanisms,” he said.
“We must ensure that any new arrangement facilitates and does not hinder nor complicate cooperation.”
An international arbitration tribunal in 2016 invalidated China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea, which overlap with Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei.
“The brewing rivalry among the big powers—all of whom are our key partners—creates volatilities that could under our hard-won gains. We cannot allow this to happen. Cooperation must prevail,” Duterte said.
“As I have said time and again, the South China Sea must remain a sea of peace, security, stability and prosperity,” he added.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought to reassure ASEAN that AUKUS did not mean a pursuit of nuclear arms and was not a security threat.
"AUKUS adds to our network of partnerships that support regional stability and security," he said in a meeting between the ASEAN and Australia.
The announcement of the AUKUS was discussed this week during ASEAN's meetings with some of its dialogue partners, comprising Australia, Britain, the US, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Canada, India, New Zealand and the European Union.
Brunei chaired the meetings.
"Indeed, we have seen a rise in geostrategic competition," Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said in response to a question on AUKUS. But he added that "at the same time, we have also witnessed growing cooperation and an increase in the number of countries working with ASEAN."
"We really hope that any new security partnership will contribute constructively towards toward regional peace and stability and complement the regional architecture," he said.
Australia's relationship with ASEAN has been upgraded to a "comprehensive strategic partnership, same with China, although details of the content of the two partnerships are still not clear.
"I'm especially pleased that ASEAN has agreed to establish comprehensive strategic partnership with both Australia and China, which will foster more substantial and mutually beneficial relationships going forward," Bolkiah said at the closing press conference for the ASEAN Summit and related meetings.
A day earlier, ASEAN addressed another burning issue in Southeast Asia, the ongoing crisis in Myanmar following a coup eight months ago. Brunei said they reiterated a call for special envoy Erywan Yusof to visit the country as mediator "with full access to all parties concerned".
Myanmar was not represented at the summit, as ASEAN had snubbed the leader of the coup, Min Aung Hlaing, for his failure to follow an agreed peace process, and the junta refused the bloc's offer to send an alternative representative.
The 10 members of ASEAN are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
— With reports from Reuters and Kyodo News