AUSTRALIA has put pressure on Beijing to end its controversial land reclamation program in the South China Sea after weapons were reportedly moved to the man-made islands last week.
Australia joins the United States and numerous Asian nations in delivering strong warnings to China about the dangers of “miscalculation” and conflict as the Chinese try to take control of the region’s island chains, reported The Australian.
Defence Minister, Kevin Andrews, told The Australian he had personally passed on Canberra’s strong concerns to Beijing at a scheduled meeting with China’s ambassador to Canberra, Ma Zhaoxu.
Mr Andrews, who is in Singapore for Shangri-La Dialogue talks between defence ministers and top military officials, said there was concern amongst many about the reclamation activities.
At the talks, the ministers have expressed their strong opposition to the use of “coercion or force to alter the status quo in the East China and South China Seas”.
“It is a major topic of conversation at this conference and at various meetings,” Mr Andrews said.
He said Australia was pressing “all parties to exercise restraint, halt all reclamation activities, refrain from provocative actions and take steps to ease tensions”.
US demands end to reclamation work
Andrews comments come after the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter demanded an immediate end to all reclamation works by claimants and said Beijing was “out of step” with international norms with its behaviour in disputed waters.
Representatives from claimant countries as well others from Southeast Asia and Europe also urged restraint on all parties in handling the dispute.
Other delegates, including Singapore’s defence chief Ng Eng Hen, his British counterpart Michael Fallon, and the European Union’s foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini repeated calls by Carter for China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to adopt a “code of conduct” in the disputed waters as soon as possible.
Carter said “there should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants,” adding that “we also oppose any further militarisation of disputed features.”
He acknowledged that other claimants have developed outposts of differing scope and degree, including Vietnam with 48, the Philippines with eight, Malaysia with five and Taiwan with one.
“Yet, one country has gone much farther and much faster than any other. “China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimants combined and more than in the entire history of the region. And China did so in only the last 18 months,” Carter said.
China hits back
China rejected the US demands saying it was exercising its sovereignty and using the controversial outposts to fulfil international responsibilities.
Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the general staff department in the People’s Liberation Army, told the security summit that “the situation in the South China Sea is on the whole peaceful and stable, and there has never been an issue with the freedom of navigation.”
“China has carried out construction on some islands and reefs in the South China Sea mainly for the purpose of improving the functions of the relevant islands and reefs, and the working and living conditions of personnel stationed there.
“Apart from meeting the necessary defence needs, it is more geared to better perform China’s international responsibilities and obligations regarding maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and relief, maritime scientific research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, safety of navigation, fishery production, services,” he added.
China insists it has sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, a major global shipping route believed to be home to oil and gas reserves, but rival claimants accuse it of expansionism.
“When dealing with maritime disputes with relevant neighbouring countries, China has always kept in mind the larger interest of maritime security,” Sun told the annual meeting known as the Shangri-La Dialogue.
“In spite of the sufficient historical and legal evidence and its indisputable claims, rights and interests, China has exercised enormous restraint, making positive contributions to peace and stability of the region and the world at large.”
Beijing has also accused Washington of carrying out provocative moves in the South China Sea.
The Chinese military this month ordered a US Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft to leave an area above the heavily-disputed Spratly Islands. But the American plane ignored the demand.
Carter said on Saturday that US planes and warships will continue patrolling what Washington considers international navigation zones in the South China Sea.
Kevin Andrews told the Wall Street Journal in an interview on the sidelines of the meeting that Canberra would also do the same.
“We’ve been doing it for decades, we’re doing it currently…and we’ll continue to do it into the future,” he said.
US, Japan and Australia hold talks
A statement released by the Department of Defence Ministers Japanese said that Defence Minister Gen Nakatani, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, and Australian Minister for Defence Kevin Andrews held trilateral defence ministerial talks in Singapore on the margins of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue. This was the fifth meeting of its kind among the three nations’ top defence officials.
The statement read that the Defence Ministers from Japan and Australia reaffirmed the strength of their respective Alliances with the United States as essential to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region, and underscored their enduring support for the US rebalance to the region.
The Japanese and US Defence Ministers confirmed close collaboration based on the new Guidelines for Japan-US Defence Cooperation and affirmed their shared intent to promote trilateral and multilateral security and defence cooperation with Australia, regional allies, and partners.
Recalling Japan’s path as a peace-loving nation for the last 70 years, the US Secretary of Defence and Australian Defence Ministers welcomed and supported Japan’s recent efforts to play a greater role in regional and global security, including its efforts to develop legislation for peace and security under the banner of “Proactive Contribution to Peace” based on the principle of international cooperation. The US also welcomed the strengthening of bilateral relations between Australia and Japan.