01 February 2016
by Phillip Coorey
Australia backs US in latest South China Sea stoush
Australia has emphatically backed the latest incursion by the United States into the South China Sea and has hinted at naval and air missions of its own.
Following Saturday's exercise in which the US guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur angered Beijing by sailing near a disputed island in the South China Sea, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne said the US was upholding international law.
"It is important to recognise that all states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea. Australia strongly supports these rights," she said in a statement on Sunday.
"Australia has a legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Approximately sixty per cent of Australia's exports pass through the South China Sea.
"As we have done for many decades, Australian vessels and aircraft will continue to exercise rights under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea."
China has been inflaming tensions in the region with its territorial claims over international trade routes, even building artificial reefs and islands to expand those claims. Other nations, Taiwan and Vietnam, are following suit.
In a statement, the Pentagon said the USS Wilbur had sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel Islands, to counter "excessive maritime claims of parties that claim the Paracel Islands".
"This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants - China, Taiwan and Vietnam - to restrict navigation rights and freedoms," said a Pentagon spokesman.
"This operation demonstrated, as the President (Barack Obama) and (Defence) Secretary (Ashton Carter) have stated, that we will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.
"That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe.".
It is the second such statement of intent by the US following last year's sail past the disputed Spratly Islands by the US destroyer USS Lassen and the reaction from Beijing was again an angry one.
"The US warship violated Chinese law and entered China's territorial sea without authorisation," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
"The Chinese side conducted surveillance and vocal warnings to the US warship."
Senator Payne opened the door to Australia talking a more proactive role to protect its trade routes, saying "Australia continues to cooperate closely with the United States and other regional partners on maritime security".
In December, Australia backed the US by stepping up flights of a surveillance aircraft, an RAAF P-3 Orion, over the disputed air space, prompting a demand from Chinese naval forces in the waters below to explain itself.
An Australian crewman told the Chinese navy the plane was "exercising international freedom of navigation rights".
The situation was discussed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Obama when they met in Washington two weeks ago and by Mr Turnbull and US Pacific fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris when the met i Hawaii as the Prime Minister flew home.
In November last year, Mr Turnbull put Australia's concerns directly to both China's president and premier during bilateral talks on the sidelines of international summits.
In Malaysia, he used talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to reinforce Australia's message that Beijing's behaviour was "counterproductive" to China's interests and warn that history had shown such behaviour had led to armed conflict.