Mon, Jun 01, 2015 - Page 5 News List

Australia plans to keep eye on South China Sea

Bloomberg

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, left, and Australian Minister of Defence Kevin Andrews attend a discussion on the third day of the 14th Asia Security Summit in Singapore yesterday.

Photo: EPA

Australia will continue its surveillance flights over the disputed South China Sea and insists on unhindered access to the area’s trading routes, Australian Minister for Defence Kevin Andrews said.

“We have been surveilling the area for close to thirty five years,” Andrews said yesterday in an interview on the sidelines of the Shangri-La security forum in Singapore. “We are doing it currently and we will continue to do it in the future.”

Andrews would not be drawn on whether Australia might fly planes over reefs that China has reclaimed — a move that could amount to a “freedom of navigation” challenge. China has reserved the right to have an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea and its navy has warned planes to stay away from some areas.

“We want a de-escalation of tensions in the area,” Andrews said. “We insist upon the right to use waters, transit waters, that have been traditionally used over a long period of time.”

Australia, a longstanding US ally in the region with marines based in its tropical northern city of Darwin, is seeking to balance its concerns about China’s military rise against the need to preserve economic ties with its largest trading partner, a big buyer of the country’s iron ore. Andrews said Australia is a “good friend of China” and “we want to retain that relationship with them.”

His comments in the interview echoed remarks by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during his speech to the Singapore forum, where he pledged the US would fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.

China this month warned a US surveillance aircraft to leave a “military alert zone” after it approached reclaimed reefs occupied by China in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島). Parts of the South China Sea are also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.

Asked if Australian aircraft would fly over the contested reefs, Andrews said: “I don’t know exactly where they are going, every mission is slightly different in terms of where it is going, but there is surveillance over the South China Sea.”

Andrews said that Australian P-3 Orion aircraft operate to the east and west of Malaysia with the knowledge of the Malaysian government and other countries in the area.

“We support the rights of all countries in the region to be able to transit international waters, to have unencumbered trade,” Andrews said.

“As a trading nation, that is significant for Australia,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

Still, “as to suggestions that there is going to be some international force or something like that, I think we’re all getting ahead of ourselves at this stage,” he said.

Andrews said that China’s turning a rocky outcrop or reef into a “full airport,” while putting weapons on them, has raised tensions because it is a militarization that has not occurred before.

“We’re saying to all parties in the South China Sea that the reclamation activities should cease,” he said.

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