Australia to Continue Military Patrols in South China Sea
Defense Minister Kevin Andrews says Australia won’t bow to pressure from China
By Rob Taylor in the Wall Street Journal
CANBERRA, Australia—The Australian government has asserted its right to fly military patrols over contested South China Sea islands claimed by Beijing, but said on Sunday it hadn’t had formal talks with the U.S. on naval missions as a direct challenge to Chinese muscle-flexing.
Australia’s Defense Minister Kevin Andrews, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal from Singapore, said Canberra had sent long-range maritime patrol aircraft over the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, and would continue to do so despite the potential for obstruction from China.
“We’ve been doing it for decades, we’re doing it currently…and we’ll continue to do it into the future,” Mr. Andrews said, in one of his first foreign press interviews since assuming responsibility for Australia’s military during a Cabinet shake-up in Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s conservative government last year.
“We don’t see there’ll be any change to that operation. It’s been a long-term operation and it’s been well known by all the countries in the region,” Mr. Andrews said.
Top U.S. Navy and Marine commanders in the Pacific have been urging close-ally Australia since last year to consider joining multilateral naval policing missions in the South China Sea, potentially alongside Washington’s chief regional ally Japan, helping to reinforce the rebalance of U.S. forces to the Asia region.
But that pressure has taken a sharper edge since China began constructing artificial islands in waters claimed also by other regional nations, with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter calling on Saturday for “an immediate and lasting halt” to the expansion.
Australia Prime Minister would be briefed on security developments within the region in coming weeks, local newspapers said last week, in what could presage a change in Canberra’s position of urging all regional nations to avoid coercive action changing the South China Sea status quo.
Australia’s government is currently producing a new strategic blueprint which, when completed later this year, will guide Canberra’s approach to alliances and regional flash points. The country is also modernizing its navy and air force with new submarines, destroyers, frigates, amphibious carriers and fighter aircraft.
Mr. Andrews, who met with Mr. Carter and Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani on the sidelines of a strategic summit in Singapore on Saturday, said Australia taking a role in multilateral naval patrols had not yet come up in talks with his American counterparts.
“The U.S. haven’t talked to us about this,” he said. “At this stage, there’s been no request from the U.S. in that regard.”
‘We’ve been doing it for decades, we’re doing it currently…and we’ll continue to do it into the future.’
—Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews
Sources in both the U.S. and Australian military said talks on so-called “freedom of navigation” missions had so far been at lower levels, with the U.S. still sounding out its close ally on patrols that for Canberra could risk trade and diplomatic ties with Beijing, its major trade partner.
“Asking formally at ministerial level risks being told no,” said Peter Dean, an analyst at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre at the Australian National University. “Australia is still making up its mind.”
Mr. Andrews said it was too early to be talking about multilateral naval patrols, given his U.S. counterpart had only laid out Washington’s position on Saturday. He said he had also met recently with China’s top envoy to Canberra.
Approval for Australia to take a role in multilateral patrolling would also, he said, require approval from senior security ministers inside Mr. Abbott’s Cabinet.
“We believe that it’s in the interests of all countries to ensure a free an unencumbered transit through international waters, which includes the South China Sea, and we will continue to transit the South China Sea including surveillance operations that we’ve been doing for close to 35 years,” he said.