Australian military ships and aircraft would continue to patrol the South China Sea amid warnings from China that a declaration of independence by Taiwan would “mean war.”
With Taiwan reporting an increase in Chinese military aircraft in its air defense zones, and with Beijing warning independence forces against “playing with fire,” the Australian government is closely monitoring developments in the region.
The US military last weekend announced that a US aircraft carrier group had entered the South China Sea in a bid to promote “freedom of the seas.”
“Australian vessels and aircraft will continue to exercise rights under international law to freedom of navigation and overflight, including in the South China Sea, and we support others doing the same,” a spokesperson for the Australian Department of Defense said. “On Taiwan, we are aware of the situation and continue to monitor developments.”
The comments were in response to questions about the US aircraft carrier group’s arrival, and whether the administration of US President Joe Biden had asked Australia to join it in the South China Sea or whether it would carry out its own exercises soon.
The Australian government believes that it has a substantial interest in the stability of the South China Sea, in part because of the vast volume of trade that flows through it.
While Australia routinely operates alongside the US and other partners, Canberra sticks to the position of not commenting on the specific details of Australian Defense Force operations.
Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman Wu Qian (吳謙) on Thursday said that Taiwan was “an inalienable part of China” and the Chinese military activities in the Taiwan Strait were “a solemn response to the interference of external forces and the provocations by ‘Taiwan independence’ forces.”
According to a ministry summary of the monthly news conference, Wu also said he wanted to warn independence forces “that those who play with fire will set themselves on fire, and seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ means nothing but war.”
It is understood that the Australian government’s position is to support a peaceful resolution of differences over Taiwan and other regional issues through dialogue, and without the threat or use of force or coercion.
Canberra also maintains that US leadership in the Indo-Pacific is welcome to uphold rules, norms and standards.
Australian Minister of Defence Linda Reynolds said after her first telephone call with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Wednesday that Australia and the US would “continue to work side by side with allies and partners to maintain a region that is secure, prosperous, inclusive and rules-based.”
The Pentagon issued a statement saying that the secretary of defense had “emphasized the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, founded on existing international law and norms in a region free of malign behavior.”
Neither the Pentagon nor Reynolds directly mentioned China, but Australia has been at odds with its largest trading partner over a range of issues, including Beijing’s militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea and a crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.
Australian Secretary of the Department of Defense Greg Moriarty last month said that China had acted in a “disturbing” manner and complicated Australia’s security environment through its activities in the South China Sea.
Some countries in the Indo-Pacific were deeply anxious about the prospects for peace and stability, Moriarty said, adding that the great powers should conduct themselves in a way that reassured the region.
The Australian government has been seeking a resumption of ministerial and leader-level talks with China after Canberra’s call for a global inquiry into COVID-19 triggered a freeze in such dialogue.
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