Note: The progress of repairing China-Australia ties, strained over Canberra’s concerns about Chinese influence in its domestic affairs, has been “unsatisfactory”, said China’s top diplomat Wang Yi after meeting his Australian counterpart.
The Morrison government has joined with the United States and Japan to issue a pointed condemnation of China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in waters to Australia’s north.
As Australia reportedly considers a request by Washington to contribute military assets to an international effort to protect oil tankers from attacks by Iranian forces, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Japan Foreign Minister Taro Kono ramped up pressure on China over its military build-up in South East Asia.
The ministers expressed “serious concern” over “credible reports of disruptive activities in relation to long-standing oil and gas projects” in the South China Sea – a coded reference to Chinese vessels harassing Vietnamese ships trying to access key oil rigs.
There is growing concern in the region – including within Australia – about the tensions with Vietnam, which have added a new layer of complexity to China’s controversial island-building program in the South China Sea.
Australia and the US have also expressed alarm at reports of a deal between Beijing and Cambodia to to station Chinese troops, store weapons and berth warships at the Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand.
The trio of ministers discussed the developments during a summit in Bangkok this week ahead of a meeting in Sydney on Sunday between Senator Payne, Mr Pompeo, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and her US counterpart, Mark Esper.
“The ministers reiterated their commitment to international law and its importance in maintaining peace and stability in the maritime domain,” the US, Australia and Japan said in a rare joint statement that did not specifically name China.
“The ministers expressed serious concerns about negative developments in the South China Sea, including the deployment of advanced weapons systems on disputed features.
“The ministers voiced strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions such as land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarisation of disputed features and other actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment in areas pending delimitation.”
Mr Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s top diplomat, told US media ahead of his trip to Thailand that Washington had asked Australia, Japan, France, Germany and South Korea to contribute to a US-led coalition to protect shipping lanes in the Persian gulf from Iranian interference.
Asked about the request on Friday, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said: “No doubt this will be one of the matters that will be discussed. From an Australian point of view, no decision has been made.”
Senator Payne used her visit to Thailand to announce a $30 million initiative to help Mekong partners combat transnational crime and strengthen security, as well as a $80 million program to fight human trafficking, modern slavery and forced labour across the ASEAN region.
“A stable, resilient, outward-looking and prosperous Mekong is an important part of Australia’s vision for the Indo-Pacific,” she said.
By Bevan Shields