CANBERRA – Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has played down Australia’s involvement in “live fire” exercises in the South China Sea amid rising tensions between China and the United States over nearby disputed territories.
As part of the long-planned 'Nichi Gou Trident' exercise, the Australian Navy’s HMAS Stuart and HMAS Arunta worked alongside Chinese warships on Monday, in a rare collaboration with a Western military force, near the southern Chinese port of Zhanjiang, south-west of Hong Kong.
'The conduct of these activities between navies is the oldest form of international diplomacy and is fundamental in developing our understanding and cooperation between the RAN and the People's Liberation Army's Navy' said Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, AO, CSC.
But China is warning the U.S. is risking war after one of its warships asserted freedom of navigation last Tuesday near two of China’s man-made islands. The USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of the islands.
China has also summoned its U.S. Ambassador back to Beijing.
Australia strongly supports the right of the U.S. to assert its rights at sea, but in a difficult diplomatic balancing act, is not taking sides.
“We are currently engaged in joint exercises with the Chinese Navy. We are currently engaged in joint exercises with the United States,” Bishop told ABC radio.
“We don’t take sides in these territorial claims. I have made that quite clear for years now.”
There are concerns that China will use today’s exercises for propaganda purposes, while former Labor Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has urged the government to send a warship to assert freedom of navigation like the United States.
Bishop wants the U.S. and China to ease tensions.
“What we believe should happen, is the parties take the claims to international courts to have them judged according to international laws, the law of the sea and in the meantime, there should be a de-escalation of tensions and there should be freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight throughout the South China Sea,” she said.
“Australia has a deep national interest in this because two-thirds of our trade passes through the South China Sea.”
China regards the South China Sea as one of its core national interests and is prepared to defend the islands that it has created.
The disputed territories in the South China Sea are resource rich and are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
The oil and gas reserves have been referred by some experts as a "second Persian Gulf".
“This raises a whole question of whether a constructed feature can generate any kind of maritime or economic zone, or any territorial claim,” the Australian Foreign Minister said.
“Our position has always been that these matters should be resolved pursuant to international law, negotiated arbitration and so if China claims that it has territorial claims over features that have been constructed then that is a matter which tested in the international courts.”