08 October 2015
by David Wroe
Marise Payne: Australia will oppose 'intimidation' and 'aggression', in veiled warning to China
Defence Minister Marise Payne
Defence Minister Marise Payne has delivered a blunt message that the Turnbull government will not take a softer line than its predecessor on Chinese provocations over flashpoint maritime disputes.
Senator Payne told a high-powered naval audience that included one of China's most senior admirals on Wednesday that Australia continued to oppose "intimidation" and "aggression" on competing territorial claims – a clear reference to Beijing's recent behaviour.
"While we don't take a position on competing claims, Australia continues to strongly oppose the use of intimidation, of aggression or coercion to advance any country's claims or to unilaterally alter the status quo," she told the Royal Australian Navy's annual Sea Power conference in Sydney.
"The government does remain concerned about the destabilising impact of land reclamation activities in the South China Sea."
The remarks appear aimed at quelling speculation from some quarters that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would take a softer line on Beijing than his predecessor Tony Abbott.
Among the audience of naval officers from about 40 countries was a Chinese delegation including one of the PLA Navy's deputy commanders, Vice Admiral Tian Zhong.
Beijing undertook a massive island-building project recently in the South China Sea to buttress its territorial claims over waters that are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines among others.
It also created an international outcry by declaring an "air defence identification zone" over waters that are disputed with Japan, demanding that planes identify themselves before flying through the air space.
As a country with an economy that depends heavily on global trade, Australia had a "direct national interest in the maintenance of free of navigation in areas like the South China Sea", Senator Payne said.
She also said Australia would strengthen its defence co-operation in south-east Asia and the South Pacific to "enhance Defence's ability to contribute to the maintenance of a stable, wider Indo-Pacific region within an international system based on the rule of law".
The upcoming Defence white paper is understood to include as one of its key strategic objectives the construction of a network of neighbourhood defence ties that can absorb unilateral provocations such as those by Beijing recently in the South China Sea.
Senator Payne said this "expansion in defence engagement" would include more regular training and exercises with neighbours.
While economic interdependence could mitigate the risk of hostilities, "tensions do persist in the Asia-Pacific and, it should be acknowledged in some cases, are becoming more acute," she said.
Her comments follow blistering remarks by the US commander of the massive Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, the previous day warning that if bullying behaviour at sea of the kind shown by China is not confronted, it will spread to land and become a "friction point" there.
Admiral Swift used the Sea Power conference to deliver a thinly veiled insistence that Beijing would not get away with its island-building and maritime coercion in Asia.