The Federal Government is under renewed pressure to step up to China in the disputed South China Sea ahead of an important meeting between top US and Australian officials this week.
- Australia has hardened its position against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea
- The ministers will likely discuss Australia’s participation in AUSMIN talks in Washington this week
- The US said it wanted Australia to participate in freedom of navigation operations
Last week, ABC revealed that Australian warships met with the Chinese navy while sailing through the region to the Philippine Sea training exercises with the American and Japanese navies.
Australia has now hardened its position on Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, labeling the activity as illegal in a statement to the United Nations.
Secretary of Defense Linda Reynolds and Secretary of State Marise Payne will likely discuss regional flashpoints with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the annual AUSMIN talks in Washington.
The US has increased the number of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea and made no secret that they want to see other countries – including Australia – do the same.
“We always want to see more like-minded countries participate because it builds an international consensus and puts pressure on the PRC. [People’s Republic of China] to fit the international consensus, “said a senior US official.
The Australian Government has successively directed navy ships to sail through the South China Sea, but never within 12 nautical miles of land features claimed by Beijing.
In his biography, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said his government had never sent naval vessels within the 12-mile limit because he feared they would be hit or deactivated by the Chinese navy.
“If America supports us, then China will back down. But if Washington is hesitant or, for whatever reason, decides not to or cannot immediately intervene, then China will achieve a huge propaganda victory, by exposing the US to tiger paper. unreliable by its allies, “he wrote.
‘This is China against like-minded countries’
But senior US officials said if more countries were operating in the region, it might actually reduce tensions in the region by “removing US-Chinese binaries from the equation”.
“This is not China against the US because they want to describe it, this is China against like-minded people [nations]”they say.
“Are other countries doing FONOP or just sailing together or doing more joint operations … which reinforces the message that we support an order based on regulations and China is a country that diverts from that.”
Debate about the behavior of the Chinese Government in the important trading waters of the South China Sea flared up again as wider competition between Washington and Beijing increased.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Mark Esper signaled that the US navy would continue to sail through the region and would help other countries in the region to push back against Chinese naval aggression.
“In 2019, we carried out the greatest amount of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in the 40-year history of the FONOPS program, and we will continue to follow this year,” he said.
“We want to strengthen our relations in the region so that Southeast Asian countries can defend and defend their own waters.”
Meanwhile, Australia anticipates an angry reaction from Beijing over its new legal stance which debates the Chinese Government’s sovereignty claim.
The Chinese Communist Party’s tabloid hawk The Global Times has accused Australia of “carelessly provoking” and warned Chinese leaders could respond by sanctioning trade in Australian wine and beef.
The US Ambassador to Australia Arthur B Culvahouse Jr. praised the Federal Government’s legal statement.
He said, “Australia’s strong and sustainable leadership in the region helps secure our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific”.