Australia’s Ambassador to the Philippines Bill Tweddell on Thursday expressed his government’s concern about China’s reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), and urged claimant countries to clarify their maritime entitlements in the region.
In a news conference, Tweddell said China’s reclamation activities and unilateral actions by claimants in the West Philippine Sea could raise tensions.
“We strongly oppose the use of intimidation, aggression or coercion to advance any country’s claims or the unilateral [disregard of]the status quo [in]the South China Sea. We urge all claimants to exercise restraint, to take steps to ease tensions and refrain from any provocative actions that could raise tensions [there],” he said.
Even though Australia is not a part of the disputed area and has no claims in the region, the envoy added that they have “quite a legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”
Tweddell, however, clarified that Australia does not take sides in the competing maritime claims in the region.
Australia’s legitimate interests, he said, are based on its need to ensure freedom of trade and commerce in the region. About 60 percent of its trade go through the West Philippine Sea while 40 percent of its incoming trade sail through contested waters there.
The envoy called on countries in the region to clarify and pursue territorial claims and accompanying maritime rights in accordance with international maritime laws, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Like Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Tweddell also welcomed Washington’s rebalance in the region, including increased presence in the contested waters because of its concern about China’s massive reclamation projects.
“I think we join other friends in the region, including the Philippines [in welcoming]a constructive US presence in the region… It is hardly news to us,” he said.
But Australia maintains that East Asia and the Asia Pacific have been the focus of their diplomatic efforts and interest.
“This is our backyard,” Tweddell said.
Australia has been helping the Philippines in maritime training and exercises, which, he added, are a big part of the relationship between the Philippines and Australia.
But Tweddell said such partnership does not necessarily exist to be used against a particular country or an individual threat.