China has dodged any formal reprimand for its aggression in the South China Sea but Malcolm Turnbull has backed Barack Obama in urging Beijing to respect a “binding” international court ruling that found no legal basis for its territorial claims.
With the dispute overshadowing the East and South-East Asian summits, Mr Obama used his last formal event in the region as US President to ask China to abide by the rule of law and not act unilaterally.
“The landmark arbitration ruling in July, which is binding, helped clarify maritime rights in the regions,” Mr Obama told leaders at the East Asia Summit in Vientiane yesterday.
The Prime Minister, who met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on the sidelines of the summit, echoed the US President.
“Everybody knows where they stand and the decision at The Hague is a fact — it is a reality,” Mr Turnbull said.
Beijing has refused to accept The Hague’s ruling and has accused the US of interference. The official communique avoided any specific reference to the argument but noted several leaders were “seriously concerned”.
China has built a military base on the Spratly Islands that are subject to competing claims from several nations and the Philippines is concerned China is planning to build on the Scarborough Shoal, not far from the Philippine coast.
President Li, according to the Chinese foreign ministry, is willing to work with neighbours in “dispelling interference … and properly handling the South China Sea issue”.
At one point during the summit, erratic Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte threw his script away during his designated time to speak.
The Prime Minister conceded reaching settlement on a code of conduct, already 14 years in the making, was “slow”.
“But there is, I would say, a sense of cautious optimism that agreement can be reached on the code of conduct,” Mr Turnbull said.
He said South-East Asian leaders greeted his invitation to hold the 2018 meeting in Australia with “great enthusiasm”.
“And we look forward to that as another building block in what is already a very strong relationship,” Mr Turnbull said.