SYDNEY: Australian Defense Minister David Johnston has backed comments by his United States counterpart Chuck Hagel accusing China of “destabilizing” actions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Speaking in Singapore on Saturday, Hagel accused China of a number of alleged infractions, including against the Philippines and Vietnam, the two most vocal critics of Beijing’s territorial claims.
“In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” the US Secretary of Defense told the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.
In opening the forum, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged countries to respect the rule of law, in apparent reference to perceived Chinese aggression in the South and East China seas.
Johnston told the Sydney Morning Herald, in an interview from Singapore published on Monday, that he supported their view.
“The US, Australia and Japan are very concerned that unilateral action is destabilizing the region of the South China Sea particularly, and the East China Sea,” he said.
When asked whether he supported Hagel’s comments, the Australian minister said: “I do to the extent that it is destabilization . . . in a previously very successful region that has been able to deliver enormous amounts of prosperity to countries in the Asia-Pacific.
“This instability is unwarranted and quite damaging to the future economic prospects. So I do share Secretary Hagel’s concerns.”
Johnston said Australia did not take sides in territorial disputes between China and other countries but said Canberra would attempt to persuade the Asian superpower there was “another path.”
China has denounced Hagel’s “provocative” comments along with those of Abe.
Japan also on Monday hit back at China’s denunciation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech at a regional security forum, firing the latest salvo in an ongoing tit-for-tat row.
On Sunday, Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, told the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that the comments made by Abe and US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the conference were “unacceptable.”
But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo: “We believe the Chinese senior official made claims based on mistake of facts and defamed our country.”
Suga said the Japanese delegation in Singapore immediately made a “strong protest” against the remarks to the Chinese side.
In response to the US and Japanese remarks, Wang said in an address to the forum: “The Chinese delegation . . . have this feeling that the speeches of Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel are a provocative action against China.”
He added: “The speeches made by Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel gave me the impression that they coordinated with each other, they supported each other, they encouraged each other and they took the advantage of speaking first . . . and staged provocative actions and challenges against China.”
Relations between Tokyo and Beijing have fallen to their lowest point for years, with much of the animus focused on disputed islands that Japan administers but China claims.