Beijing criticised for altering status quo in East and South China seas

Defence chiefs of US, Japan and Australia urge Beijing to follow international law and respect tribunal ruling at regional summit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 11:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 12:06am

China was criticised for “unilaterally” altering the status quo in the East and South China seas at a regional security forum at the weekend, although envoys for Beijing argued their nation follows international law.

Defence ministers from the United States, Japan and Australia also voiced support for a ruling by an international arbitration panel last year that found in favour of the Philippines in its dispute with Beijing over ownership of the South China Sea.

Speaking at the Asia Security Forum in Singapore after the three countries held a trilateral meeting, US Defence Secretary James Mattis welcomed Beijing’s help in reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula, where North Korea has been ramping up testing of its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. But Mattis tempered his praise with a rebuke to Beijing for stirring up tensions in the South China Sea, saying: “Artificial island construction and indisputable militarisation of facilities on features in international waters undermine regional stability,” Mattis told the forum on Saturday.

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His Japanese counterpart Tomomi Inada levelled similar criticism against China in her 30-minute speech. Japan was concerned over changes to the security situation in both bodies of water, she said, implying China bore most of the responsibility, without directly naming the country.

“In the East and South China seas, we continue to witness unprovoked, unilateral attempts to alter the status quo based on assertions incompatible with existing international norms,” she said.

“Regarding the South China Sea, the final award was rendered in the arbitration between the Philippines and China in July 2016,” Inada said, referring to decision delivered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which had ruled in Manila’s favour.

Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While several claimants have built facilities on islets and reefs, China has been the most aggressive with its construction activities, reclaiming 1,300 hectares, according to the Pentagon.

China and Japan both claim islands in the East China Sea, where their air and marine forces continue to patrol in close proximity.

Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne also pointed to the tribunal’s decision in her speech. “Our ships and aircraft will operate in the South China Sea, as they have for decades, consistent with the rights of freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. And we will also continue to strongly support the right of others to exercise these rights.”

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In a joint statement, the three nations called for “dialogue, cooperation, and engagement” with China, but stressed commitment to international law as well as freedom of navigation and overflight.

They called on all claimants to “halt land reclamation activities, demilitarise disputed features and refrain from provocative actions that could escalate tensions”.

The People’s Liberation Army delegation held a media briefing on the summit sidelines after the three defence ministers delivered their speeches, saying China was a power that abided by international law and the code of conduct under the United Nations.

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“I would like to note that freedom of navigation shouldn’t be equal to close-in surveillance and military activities … conducted by US fighter jets and warships in the airspace, islets and waters of Chinese territory,” Lieutenant General He Lei, vice-president of the PLA Academy of Military Science and delegation leader, told the briefing.

Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, another delegate, said the Chinese side felt unfairly singled out for criticism. Although the three-day forum began on Friday, the South China Sea issue remained at the forefront of discussions, even though all countries recognised China’s influence and leverage in solving the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.