China warns Australia over challenge to South China Sea activities

Foreign affairs minister’s stance in support of Philippines prompts warning from Beijing that Australia ‘should adopt an objective and unbiased attitude’ to territorial dispute

Australia’s foreign affairs minister has signalled she intends to challenge her Chinese counterpart over land reclamation activities in the South China Sea during a meeting in Beijing.

Julie Bishop’s stance prompted a warning from Beijing that Australia “should adopt an objective and unbiased attitude” to the territorial dispute.

Bishop was due to raise the issue with the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, on Wednesday as part of annual talks between the two countries.

Telegraphing her approach during a visit to Tokyo before travelling to Beijing, Bishop said Australia accepted the Philippines’ right to pursue its claims in the permanent court of arbitration – a position hotly disputed by China.

“I note that President Xi [Jinping] said in Washington that China did not intend to militarise the islands and therefore I will be seeking further details from China as to what it proposes to do with the reclamation and construction work that it has undertaken,” she told the Japan National Press Club on Tuesday.

“China has said in the past that these would be ‘public goods’. Well, I wish to know how other countries can access these ‘public goods’.”

Bishop said Australia welcomed China’s economic rise but it “should act in a way that contributes to regional and global stability”.

The Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei have competing claims in the region. While not formally taking a position on the various claims, Bishop said Australia maintained an “unshakeable” commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight and believed the disputes should be resolved peacefully “without coercion or intimidation”.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said Australia “should not selectively evade” the facts, which included that the Philippines had launched its “unilateral” arbitration case contrary to international law and the previous consensus between the countries.

Hong said China’s island and reef construction activities were mainly to improve its maritime search and rescue capacities, but also included a military dimension.

“Deploying necessary national defence facilities on its own territory is China’s exercise of self-preservation and defence, a right granted by international law to sovereign states,” he said during his regular press conference on Tuesday.

“The Australian side should adopt an objective and unbiased attitude and refrain from doing anything that undermines regional peace and stability.”

The tensions came ahead of the annual foreign and strategic dialogue, co-chaired by the foreign ministers. While in China, Bishop was also due to meet Australian business figures and promote a student exchange program known as the New Colombo Plan.

Australia faces a delicate balancing act responding to the rise of China, which is its biggest trading partner, and continuing its long-standing alliance with the US.

Beijing rebuked the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, in September after he said China was “pushing the envelope” in the South China Sea. Late last year, Turnbull said he and Barack Obama were “very much of the same mind” on regional issues.

Nonetheless, Australia signed a free trade agreement with China, which attracted some criticism from trade unions but came into force in December.


Daniel Hurst Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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