Australia 'pretending' to stand up to China over disputed islands, Labor says

Defence spokesman Stephen Conroy says Australian forces are not authorised to go within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands in the South China Sea

Australia should stop “pretending” to conduct freedom of navigation exercises and take more concrete action in the South China Sea, the Labor defence spokesman Stephen Conroy has said.

Conroy’s statement is a strong reiteration of Labor’s position that the defence force should be authorised to conduct freedom of navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of rocky outcrops and artificial islands in the area.

Conroy said it would be “bullying” if China retaliated economically against Australia for making such a stand.

On Tuesday an international tribunal in The Hague came down overwhelmingly in favour of claims by the Philippines over China in the South China Sea.

The Hague tribunal ruled that rocky outcrops claimed by China could not be used as the basis of territorial claims and China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in those waters by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration and by constructing artificial islands.

Conroy told Radio National on Wednesday the ruling made it “clear and unambiguous” that there was no legal basis for China to claim resources in the area.

“Labor has advocated for some time that it is important to uphold the international rules-based system.

“It is vital that we not just talk the talk but that we act and be seen to act to support the system,” he said. “The government is continuing to pretend to the Australian people that it has an ongoing program of freedom of navigation exercises – this is in fact not the case.”

Australia supports in principle freedom of navigation exercises conducted by the US within 12 nautical miles of Chinese structures but has so far not itself conducted such exercises.

Conroy said his questioning of Defence officials at Senate estimates had revealed they were not authorised to engage in freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea.

“Now that it’s very clear you can’t build an artificial island and claim rights around it – there is no 12-mile limit around these islands ... Australia should authorise its forces to both sail and fly over those areas of the South China Sea.”

Conroy said Australia should not indicate when and where it would conduct the operations, but called on the government to stop “pretending” it was engaged in them already.

On ABC’s AM Bishop called on the Philippines and China to abide by the final, binding ruling.

She said Australia had “been calling on China for some time to halt reclamation work and not to militarise the structures”.

Bishop said if China ignored the law of the sea it would be “a serious international transgression” with “strong reputational costs”.

“As we’ve done for many decades, Australian ships and aircraft will continue to exercise rights of freedom of navigation and over-flight, we’ve already been doing that, we’ll continue to do it.”

Asked if Australia would do so within 12 nautical miles, Bishop said she would not comment on the details of Australian defence force activities “but we’ve certainly exercised the right of freedom of navigation and freedom of over-flight”.

Australia should be working to reduce tensions, not increase them, she said.

Conroy said China had indicated it would ignore the ruling and its actions had become “even more aggressive and provocative, including sinking vessels and ramming vessels”.

Asked about the threat of economic repercussions if Australia conducted freedom of navigation exercises, Conroy said it was “straight-up bullying” to threaten retaliation.

He said Australia had a free trade agreement with China, and if China intended to flout the agreement in retaliation, it should say so.


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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