Australia, Asean agree to start regional infrastructure cooperation

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Asean leaders yesterday during a meeting with Australia. Reuters

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) agreed during a weekend summit in Sydney to establish a regional infrastructure pipeline, Australia’s foreign minister said, as the bloc seeks to balance rising Chinese influence.

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The project “will develop a pipeline of high-quality infrastructure projects, to attract private and public investment”, according to a statement from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued on Sunday.

Australia, the US, India and Japan have been seeking to establish a regional alternative to China’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure scheme, according to a report in the Australian Financial Review last month that cited a senior US official.

A spokeswoman for Bishop said on Monday the agreement was purely an Asean initiative and “not to counter China”.

Australia hosted the special Asean meeting, despite not being a member of the 10-nation bloc, looking to tighten political and trade ties in a region where Chinese presence is growing stronger.

A joint communique issued by Australia and Asean at the end of the meeting called for “self-restraint” in the South China Sea, where aggressive Chinese expansion has irked Asean members who also have territorial claims in the busy waterway.

“This is a security and stability question in Southeast Asia which will affect all ASEAN countries if it goes wrong,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told a news conference shortly after the communique was issued.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road plan is a vehicle for the world’s second-largest economy to take a greater role on the international stage by funding and building transport and trade links in more than 60 countries.

Mr Xi has promoted the initiative heavily, inviting world leaders to Beijing last May for an inaugural summit at which he pledged $124 billion in funding for the plan, and enshrining it into the ruling Communist Party’s constitution in October.

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