Australian military aircraft will continue to fly over disputed waters in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), even if Beijing imposes an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), a top defense official said on Monday.
A day after demanding an end to Beijing’s island-building in contested waters during a key security conference in Singapore, Defense Minister Kevin Andrews said Australia would not heed any ADIZ, which Beijing has reserved the right to declare, a report posted on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald said.
Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, told the Singapore meeting that China reserved its right to establish an air defense zone.
“Our view is, as a matter of principle, that international transit passages whether on the sea or in the air should remain free and open for access to any country to legitimately use that, particularly for trade purposes,” Andrews told Fairfax Media, the publisher of the Sydney-based daily.
“In what we regard as international waters, which we have conventionally used for transit or passage, we would continue to do that.”
The Sydney Morning Herald report said Australian naval ships and air force planes regularly move through the South China Sea either for routine exercises, patrols or transit. The HMAS Perth, an ANZAC class frigate, is in the South China Sea on a visit to Thailand and Cambodia.
Andrews delivered a hard-hitting speech at last Sunday’s Shangri-La Dialogue where he called for a halt to large-scale island-building and militarization in the Kalayaan Island Group (Spratlys).
He hinted that Australia would join the US and other countries in pushing back if Beijing persisted.
It was in China’s interests, according to Andrews, to ratchet down the tension.
“China is a trading nation. China needs everybody in the world to continue to trade with it,” he said. “We’re saying to China, ‘We want to be your friend, we are a major trading partner, we want that to continue, and the best way we can ensure that continues to the benefit of both our countries is that we have this international rules-based order.’”
While there has been discussion about a joint freedom-of-navigation exercise between the US, Australia and possibly Japan, to send a signal to Beijing that its territorial assertions are not recognized, Andrews said he had not discussed this with his US counterpart, Ashton Carter.
Australia’s Labor Party, meanwhile, cautioned Andrews to tone down his statements, saying the tension in the South China Sea demands a “calming response, a report posted in The Guardian said.
‘Making sure that we use language that calms the situation rather than inflames it is very important,’ the report, quoting Australia’s deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, said.
“Australia and our Asian neighbors in particular and others in the region have an expectation of being able to move freely now and in the future in this area,” Plibersek, also the shadow foreign minister, noted on Monday..
She urged Australian officials to take a “softly-softly approach” to China’s reclamation activities.
“Our contributions should be to ensure that tensions are de-escalated and understandings between the parties continue to improve,” Plibersek said.
A Bloomberg report said Beijing’s representative in the Singapore security meeting told conference participants that China is not seeking conflict in the South China Sea.
“China strives to play a constructive role in international affairs with an objective and impartial position and will never depend on or subjugate itself to any external forces,” Sun said a day after Carter singled out China as a source of instability in the region.
“We will not want to see chaos in this region, even less will we create troubles in this region,” he added.
Sun said China’s plan to establish an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea depends “on whether our security in the air and maritime area will be threatened and to what extent,” the same Bloomberg report said.
“The situation in the South China Sea has been on the whole peaceful and stable, there is no reason for people to play up this issue.”
Carter discussed halting land reclamations with his Vietnamese counterpart in Hanoi on Monday.
The meeting came after the United States on Saturday called for an immediate end to all such works in the disputed waters where both Vietnam and Beijing have reclaimed land.
“The US and Vietnam are working together to ensure peace and stability in this region and beyond,” the US Defense chief told reporters at a news conference in Hanoi after
“in-depth” talks on regional maritime disputes with Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh.
Thanh did not reveal Hanoi’s position on the US call to halt reclamations but insisted its activities were not an attempt at expansion.
“We have some activities to enhance and consolidate the islands that are under our sovereignty,” he also told reporters.
“We do not expand the islands, we just consolidate to prevent erosion because of waves.”
Thanh said Vietnam has soldiers stationed on its 21 islands and reefs.
Also on Saturday, Carter called for “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation[s]by all claimants,” in the South China Sea.
He said the US opposes “any further militarization of disputed features.”
Vietnam previously admitted carrying out reclamation activities on islands in the disputed waters but the scale of the works is dwarfed by those of Beijing.
Carter pledged $18 million on Monday to help Vietnam buy US-made Metal Shark patrol boats, hailing progress in a bilateral relationship that marks two decades this year since the US and Vietnam normalized ties in 1995.