CANBERRA has expressed its opposition to the “militarization” of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, saying that provocative actions would hinder progress.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made the stance in a forum hosted by the Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Makati City on Thursday, as she spoke about change and uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific region as well as strategic challenges and opportunities for Australia and the Philippines.
“Australia opposes the scaling and reclamation activities in the South China Sea islands, and certainly we do not support the militarization of the area by any country because it would raise tension, the potential for conflict. We are for the de-escalation of conflict in the region because peace is essential to development,” Bishop said.
China has been conducting reclamation activities in the disputed islands, including those within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“We are for exercising freedom of navigation for an unimpeded trade,” Bishop added.
She challenged the Philippines to lead the push for a binding code of conduct among claimant countries in the South China Sea, especially that the Philippines won a case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in July 2016.
The arbitration tribunal thrashed China’s claim on almost the entire South China Sea based on its “nine-dash-line” map, and outlawed China’s aggression against Filipino fishermen and reclamation projects.
The ruling declared that Filipino fishermen enjoy fishing rights at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), and that the Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank are all within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
“The Court of Arbitration already set our very clear rules on maritime claims in the South China Sea. Claims have already been clarified. Considering the situation in the South China Sea, the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) should drive towards a code of conduct, given that the arbitration ruling has clear recommendations,” Bishop said.
“These findings [of the UN arbitration court]can be the basis of the Code of Conduct among claimant Asean countries and China; a framework that should be done as soon as possible,” she added.
The Philippines is the chairman and host of the Asean Summit and related meetings this year.
Bishop underscored that cooperation among countries is crucial, considering the discrepancy of military spending which favors the bigger economies in the Indo-Pacific region such as the United States, China, Japan and India.
China accounts for more than 60 percent of military spending in East Asia or five times the military outlay of Southeast Asia, she said. The US spends two to three times more than China on its military, while China’s military spending is eight times larger than Australia’s.
Moreover, China’s military spending is 55 times larger than that of the Philippines.
“The challenge is to constructively engage with each other based on an international rules-based order so that other countries can also have the same benefits as these economic giants like [the US], China and Japan,” Bishop said.