30 October 2015
by Lisa Murray

China warns Australia over naval standoff

A senior officer and military expert in the People's Liberation Army has warned Australia not to escalate tensions in the South China Sea by following the lead of the United States and beginning naval operations close to reefs claimed by Beijing.

Senior Colonel Li Jie, a military expert at the PLA, said Australia's involvement would "only bring trouble," and Canberra should not become involved.

His comments follow a US mission earlier this week, in which guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago, where China has been constructing islands with ports, fuel storage depots and airstrips.

The area, which is a vital trade corridor and rich in oil, gas and fisheries, is subject to a complicated web of territorial disputes involving the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The US, concerned about China's aggressive moves to enforce its territorial claims, had been indicating for weeks it would conduct the sail-through. The so-called "freedom of navigation" operation was aimed at asserting the right of ships to pass through international waters.

Two PLA warships tracked, monitored and warned the USS Lassen but the sail-through was completed without incident.

Colonel Li said if the US continued to conduct sail-throughs close to the islands, the possibility of a skirmish "could not be excluded".

"They infringed on China's sovereignty and went against China's maritime interests," he said. "We will take strong measures to resolve this."
"It is not in Australia's interest to become involved,"
he said.

Australian defence planners have reportedly drawn up contingency plans for a possible sail-through of the contested waters in support of the US, but the government has no immediate intention to carry them out. Rather, it is taking part in some joint exercises with Chinese warships over the next week.

Two Australian naval frigates will visit Zhanjiang in Guangdong province, this weekend, as part of a confidence-building exercise.

"There have been no changes or delays to the schedule of the HMAS Arunta and HMAS Stuart since the United States activity in the South China Sea," a spokesman for Defence Minister Marise Payne said in emailed comments on Thursday.

"The Royal Australian Navy has a long history of engagement with regional navies and regularly conducts port visits and exercises – including in China."

The spokesman did not comment on whether Australia was planning to conduct its own sail-through of the contested waters around the Spratlys.

"As they do now, Australian vessels and aircraft will continue to exercise rights under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight," he said.