Canberra on Wednesday said it will not support acts by any country that would go against the international tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea (SCS)—including its militarization—and is encouraging both China and the Philippines to implement the decision.
“We believe that [ruling] reflects international law and we support a rules-based international order,” Australian Ambassador Amanda Gorely said at the BusinessMirror Coffee Club Forum on Wednesday. She noted that the decision of the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague “is a very important and fundamental value and principle that is at the core of Australian foreign policy.”
Gorely’s statement was in reply to a question on how Australia feels about China’s militarization of some reclaimed islands and features in the SCS.
She was asked how they would react to China’s continued construction in some features in the SCS when Australia’s own military has participated in freedom of navigation operations, together with the United States Navy, two years ago.
It was reported that despite the ruling that the nine-dash line is illegal, China continues to improve the facilities of the islands it has reclaimed.
A US think thank has reported during the last quarter of 2017 that China has not only built but has added new military facilities, such as missile installations and radar-antenna arrays on islands in the SCS.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said new satellite images show missile shelters and radar and communications facilities being built on the Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands.
The US has criticized China’s buildup of military facilities on the artificial islands and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement through the SCS, an important route where an estimated $5.3 trillion worth of global trade passes.
“Australia has encouraged both China and the Philippines to implement the ruling because we believe that reflects international law, and we support a rules-based international order,” Gorely said, adding: “It is a very important and fundamental value and principle that is at the core of Australian foreign policy.”
Asked if Australia is not threatened by China’s expansive claims in the SCS, Gorely said: “I think if those installations add to the tension in the region or in any way prevent passage into the South China Sea, then, yes, I think Australia and many other countries will be affected.”
She stressed that, although Australia is not one of the claimant-states, it still has a very big stake in the “security of this region and the adherence to international law of all states.”
Gorely said Australia’s approach and policy toward SCS has been very consistent over a long period of time.
“Australia is not a claimant-state, but we do have a significant interest in freedom of navigation through the SCS. I think about 70 percent of our trade goes through the SCS. We’re the biggest trading partner of China, including Japan and South Korea, and so we have a lot of Australian products going through that region, and we very much believe freedom of navigation is established in international law and respected.”
“We oppose any militarization of the SCS, and we’ve been quite firm in our statements on that,” she added, noting that Australia’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister regularly explain Australia’s position on the militarization of the SCS.
However, Gorely hastily added that she does not think the Philippines has to make a choice regarding its relations with the US and China.
“Australia is exactly the same as the Philippines in the way we have our alliances with the United States. Our treaties were signed two days after the Philippines’s treaty and very, very similar in attainment and commitments.”
Australia, she added, also has very strong bilateral relations with China. “We are the no. 1 trading partner, we have regular ministerial meetings in both directions, we have strategic partnerships with China and a very respectable relationship.”
“I don’t see why the Philippines can’t be the same. All countries need to exchange views in friendly and respectful ways, and that’s why having international law as the benchmark is very useful, because that is the basis to resolve disputes, and I think that is what the Philippines is trying to do to,” she added.
Asked whether Australia has not communicated its concerns in the SCS to President Duterte, who seems to have been enamored of China that Manila has ceased reminding Beijing of the Philippines’s victory in the arbitration, this is what Gorely said:
“We generally make our views publicly known, and we are opposed to further land reclamation and militarization in the SCS. That is our position, and that will continue to be our position.
“On the other hand, we don’t tell other countries how they should operate their own foreign policy. We work in a constructive way; we had forums like the East Asia summit, the Asean summit, where we get to discuss these things in a constructive forum.
“We have bilateral meetings where we talk strategic issues and challenges in the region and does not stand in the way of a respectful sovereignty; that’s the only way you can build international relations.”
By way of example, Gorely said they have just settled their territorial dispute with Timor Leste through a conciliation process.
“I think that provides a very good example for countries to resolve territorial disputes and, I’d say too, China and the Asean have negotiated a code of conduct (COC), in the SCS. We believe that should be legally binding.
Asked if the COC would be discussed during the coming Australia-Asean summit from March 16 to 18, Gorely replied: “That is not in the agenda.”
Image credits: Alysa Salen