Australia, the United States and Japan have denounced island-building and militarisation of the South China Sea in a joint statement likely to prompt an angry response from China.
In a statement issued on the sidelines of Asia’s biggest security forum in Manila, Australia’s foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her two counterparts also called on China to abide by a UN-backed tribunal last year that rejected Beijing’s claims to almost all of the strategically important and resource-rich waterways.
China has refused to recognise either the tribunal sitting at The Hague or the ruling and insists that the US and its allies should stay out of what Beijing says are purely bilateral disputes with its neighbours.
The statement contrasted with a weak response to growing tensions over the sea by the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations, which hosted the annual forum.
The ASEAN foreign ministers meeting earlier made no mention of the ruling that was brought to the Hague by the Philippines.
The ministers instead issued carefully worded documents to avoid angering China, adopting a so-called “framework” that only commits China and ASEAN to begin “consultations” – not negotiations – on a code of conduct for the sea that was first mooted 15 years ago.
Ms Bishop, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Japan’s foreign minister Taro Kono issued their statement after the meeting on Monday.
They called on “all claimants to make and clarify their maritime claims” and to “resolve disputes peacefully in accordance with the international law of the sea.”
In a speech in Thailand last week, Ms Bishop said there is a compelling need to defend the rules-based order in the region, saying “rising tensions in the South China Sea are a challenge to regional security.”
“We need resilient and clear processes to manage conflict and the maintenance of the norms that apply to all states, large and small,” she said.
Chinese structures and an airstrip on the man-made Subi Reef at the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea. Photo: AP
Other claimants to the sea are the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
One third of global trade passes through the waterways where China has built artificial islands and deployed military weapons, radar and aircraft.
From left, Laos’ Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith, Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini. Photo: AP
In July Vietnam shutdown drilling for oil and gas in disputed waters 400 kilometres off its coast after China threatened to attack Vietnamese bases unless the drilling stopped.
Analysts believe China will continue to grow its influence on ASEAN at a time of uncertainty over the Trump administration’s security priorities and whether it will try to keep China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea in check.
In Manila, Ms Bishop also met with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi who later said Beijing hopes to “expand all area of co-operation with Australia,” according to the Chinese newsagency Xinhua.
Ms Bishop said Australia-China relations have developed to a new level following more interactions of high-level officials from two countries.
Xinhua’s report on the meeting made no mention of the South China Sea.
By Lindsay Murdoch
Sydney Morning Herald