Australia warned over South China Sea remarks

By Wu Gang Source:Global Times Published: 2016-2-17 1:13:02

Canberra uses dispute as hedge to increase presence

China on Tuesday warned Australia against doing anything that could harm regional peace, after Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she would press China to explain its construction activities on South China Sea reefs and support the Philippines' right to seek international arbitration over territorial disputes with China.

Observers said Australia is not likely to risk jeopardizing better ties with China, though it is trying to imitate the US' increasingly assertive gesture over the South China Sea issue.

Bishop was on a two-day visit to Japan before she flew to Beijing on Tuesday to meet with Chinese officials. Speaking in Tokyo before departing, Bishop said she plans to push for an explanation over construction activities on the reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea when she meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

"The focus will be on what China proposes to do with the structures. What can we expect from the lighthouses and the assets that are there? What are they going to do with them?" the Sydney Morning Herald quoted her as saying.

Bishop also expressed her support for the Philippines' challenge to Beijing at an arbitration court in The Hague over their disputed territories in the South China Sea.

"We recognize the Philippines' right to seek a resolution to the matter through arbitration, but we urge all claimants to settle their disputes peacefully without coercion, without intimidation," she said.

Hong Lei, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said China has repeatedly said it will not recognize the case, as the Philippines' unilateral act does not meet international laws and the South China Sea code of conduct reached by China and ASEAN countries. "Australia should not selectively avoid the facts," Hong told a regular press meeting in Beijing.

He stressed that it is China's right to self-defense to deploy the necessary national defense facilities on its own territory, and that they will not hinder freedom of navigation or over-flight.

The main function of the facilities on the islets and reefs is for civilian purposes such as maritime search and rescue, disaster relief, scientific research and navigation safety, he added.

"Australia should adopt an objective and impartial position and avoid doing anything to harm regional peace and stability," Hong said.

In January, several Chinese airlines tested a 3,000-meter runway built on Yongshu Reef.  

Delicate balancing act

Chinese experts said Bishop's remarks reflect the stand of the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Since Turnbull assumed office last year, Australia reportedly advised China to stop island construction in the South China Sea. He is now weighing whether to join US patrols in the South China Sea, reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

The US sent warships twice into a 12 nautical mile radius around Chinese islands in the past few months, which the Chinese government has condemned as acts of provocation.

The South China Sea is not Australia's core interest, but the country has been using the issue as a hedge to increase its presence in the region, said Wang Xiaopeng, an expert on maritime and border studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Supporting the Philippines' arbitration move is part of Australia's plan toward this goal, Wang said. "But the territorial disputes are between China and each of the claimant countries, and outside interference will only complicate the situation and impede solutions."

However, experts believe that given the growing ties between China and Australia, the Australian government is unlikely to take substantial steps to harm their relationship.

 "Australia is conducting a delicate balancing act between China and the US," Wang told the Global Times on Tuesday.

"As a US ally, Australia has been showing that it supports US policy in the South China Sea, so that it can gain the strategic support of the US in return for enhancing its regional influence," Wang said. "But Australia may not follow through with its tough talk, as it does not want to lose China, a country with which it has made significant progress in trade and cultural exchanges." 

Agencies contributed to this story

Posted in: Diplomacy

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