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ASEAN in Port

Shortly before 8 am on Tuesday 5 March, three extinction rebellion protestors blocked city bound traffic on the Westgate Bridge. Their protest was aimed to coincide with the ASEAN Australia Special Summit being hosted by Australia in Melbourne between 4 and 6 March.

The ASEAN venues were revealed by hundreds of metres of black plastic lined temporary fencing. The length of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre was shrouded in black as was the NGV where a reception and dinner was held in the Great Hall.

Helicopters hovered overhead. Police paused trams, bikes, pedestrians and cars on all approaches to the Convention Centre to allow delegates to move between venues led by police on motorcycles, with sirens and flashing lights. Police guarded every approach to the Convention Centre, as well as the entrance – alongside two pro-Palestinian protestors.

Pause too on Lilinthgow Avenue to allow cars carrying the ASEAN leaders to a retreat at Government House.

But what were they discussing and what relevance does it have to us?

The summit included a maritime theme. Foreign Minister Penny Wong gave the keynote address.1 Here are just two quotes from her speech:

‘The maritime domain is at the heart of our shared interests and our shared prosperity.’ Approximately US$5.3 trillion worth of goods transits the South China Sea annually.2

“We are bound by the geography that fate has chosen for us, and we are strengthened by the partnership we choose for ourselves.”

Maritime officials and experts came together at the Forum which covered maritime security, environmental issues, maritime law and governance and the blue economy since all ASEAN countries, apart from Laos, are coastal nations.

Foreign Minister Wong also reminded us that we take freedom of navigation for granted. The conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine show what happens when you can’t rely on it. This week also saw the first casualties on a ship in the Red Sea where seafarers died from Houthi missile strikes. The ship’s name was True Confidence.

In a post reflection session, Contested Waters, the Malaysian representative spoke about the immediate and pressing maritime challenges – over fishing, unregulated fishing, and an overcrowded undersea space where accidents are just waiting to happen whereas Australia’s focus was on great power competition in the South China Sea.

As with the climate talks in Egypt last year, perhaps the success of the Summit lies more in the relationships made between individuals and interest groups, and the side visits such as a boat tour with the Port of Melbourne. The message from the Lowy Institute is that diplomacy is as much about the practical, day to day cooperation, than the final communique.

The Port of Melbourne welcomed the formalisation of the Singapore and Australia Green and Digital Shipping Corridor (GDSC). as well as supporting the acceleration of maritime decarbonisation and digitalisation.

The ten nations that make up ASEAN are Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Brunei, Laos. Timor L’Este has observer status.


1 Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong ASEAN-Australia Special Summit 2024 – keynote address to the Maritime Cooperation Forum 4 March 2024

2 Australian Government Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

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