Australia urges 'sovereignty' as S China Sea tensions rise

US raps China for 'escalation' in S China Sea

24 August, 2019 12:00 AM printer

HANOI: Australia's prime minister on Friday urged nations in Asia to stand up for their "independence and sovereignty", with tensions high in the disputed South China Sea where Beijing is under fire for increasingly bullish behavior, reports AFP. 

Scott Morrison's comments came after the United States slammed China for its "escalation" in the waterway, a key global shipping route where Beijing is accused of deploying warships, arming outposts and ramming fishing vessels.

Morrison was speaking during a trip to Vietnam, one of China's most vocal critics over competing claims in the resource-rich sea.

A Chinese survey ship has antagonised Hanoi since early July, sailing though waters near the Spratly Islands where Vietnam has several oil and gas projects. The ship left for a brief period this month and then came back -- prompting irate calls from Hanoi to vacate the area it says falls within its Exclusive Economic Zone. On Friday, Morrison said Australia supports "the principle of international law", without naming China and refusing to "take sides".

"It is about ensuring that each and every nation in the region can have confidence in its own independence and sovereignty," he told reporters on his three-day trip. Earlier, Morrison had affirmed the Pacific region as one "of sovereign interdependent states, resistant to coercion", in comments seen as aimed at China. Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said he was "deeply concerned of recent complicated developments" in the South China Sea, urging neighbours not to use force. Morrison's conservative government has cosied up to Washington amid Beijing's increasing influence in Asia, where it has been accused by the United States of "bullying" fellow claimants in the South China Sea.

Beijing claims the majority of the sea, often invoking its so-called nine-dash line to justify its alleged historic rights, also contested by Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei. The US on Thursday said China's deployment of the survey ship in waters claimed by Vietnam was "an escalation by Beijing in its efforts to intimidate other claimants out of developing resources" in the sea.

Meanwhile, the United States on Thursday sharpened its criticism of China's activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea, slamming an "escalation" in efforts to intimidate other claimants" such as Vietnam.  China redeployed a government-owned survey vessel -- with armed escorts -- into the waters off Vietnam earlier this month, the US said. Hanoi says those waters are part of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The move could reignite a spat between Beijing and Vietnam over rights to the resource-rich waters in the South China Sea. Other countries in Southeast Asia also have claimed parts of the sea.

"The United States is deeply concerned that China is continuing its interference with Vietnam's long-standing oil and gas activities in its EEZ," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. In a statement, she called the deployment of the survey vessel "an escalation by Beijing in its efforts to intimidate other claimants out of developing resources in the South China Sea."

"This calls into serious question China's commitment... to the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes," she added.

China claims its presence in the area predates that of the other claimants, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and hence Beijing asserts sovereignty over several disputed island chains.

The South China Sea also features key shipping lanes for global maritime trade.

The United States, which is locked in a trade dispute with Beijing, regularly criticizes China's militarization of the South China Sea, which Washington sees as a way to establish its dominance.

"In recent weeks, China has taken a series of aggressive steps to interfere with ASEAN claimants' long-standing, well-established economic activities," Ortagus said, referring to member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The US said these actions were intended to "coerce" the countries to "reject partnerships with foreign oil and gas firms, and to work only with China's state-owned enterprises."

"China's actions undermine regional peace and security, impose economic costs on Southeast Asian states... and demonstrate China's disregard for the rights of countries to undertake economic activities in their EEZs," Ortagus said.

She specifically warned Beijing not to hinder efforts by US oil and gas companies to forge partnerships with other countries in the region.

On Tuesday, the White House -- via a tweet from National Security Advisor John Bolton -- accused China of using "bullying tactics."

Bolton called those efforts "disturbing."