The US and Australia have pledged to increase defence cooperation in the South China Sea (SCS). The governments of Australia and the US have signed a new “statement of principles” to further expand defence ties in the region in a bid to counter Chinese claims to the strategic waterway.
Australian Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds agreed in face-to-face talks with their US counterparts, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, to pursue “increased and regularised maritime cooperation” in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, “bilaterally and in concert with other likeminded and regional partners”.
The joint statement declares that Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea “are not valid under international law”. However, despite pressure from Washington, Canberra has stopped short of making any specific new commitment to freedom of navigation operations.
For Australia, China is a trade ally it cannot afford to lose despite recent tensions between the two nations. Had Australia bowed down to all demands from the US, Beijing could have seen it as a sign of hostility and taken actions that would have had a severe impact on the Australian economy.
Payne also noted that Australia’s relationship with China was important “and we have no intention of injuring it … but nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests”.
Apart from the decision to strengthen US-Australia cooperation in the South China Sea, the two allies also decided set up a working group to push back at false information across the Indo-Pacific region, warning that “state-sponsored malicious disinformation and interference in democratic processes are significant and evolving threats”.
China Reacts with Fury
Despite Australia’s best attempt, the joint US-Australia statement did manage to infuriate China. Beijing reacted to US-Australia defence talks by sending a warning to Canberra that it should not “go further on the road of harming [bilateral] relations”.
That warning was followed up with the comment that “any attempt to pressure China will never succeed”. China also accused Australia and the US of “unfounded accusations” in relation to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.
“Their assertions, in disregard of basic facts, violated international law and basic norms governing international relations and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs,” the Chinese embassy said in a statement.
As reported by EurAsian Times earlier, the South China Sea is a key naval passage linking Asia with Africa and Europe. As estimated $3.37 trillion of international trade passes through the SCS and it is believed to be abundant in untapped natural resources such as oil and gas. China lays claims to 80% of the SCS. It is also claimed by Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
The QUAD, Australia, India, Japan and the United States, stand firmly against Chinese claims over the South China Sea and recently even conducted a military drill in the area as a show of military might and solidarity.
The activation of the QUAD would be worrying for China since it would be the first time countries have openly united against Beijing. China’s response to the QUAD and future actions in the SCS will decide the fate of the region.