Avoid conflict, Aussie PM urges China

Turnbull points out risk of China-US confrontation over South China Sea dispute

WASHINGTON • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called on China to avoid actions in pursuit of territorial claims in Asia that could make conflict with the United States more likely.

In Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama yesterday, Mr Turnbull said Chinese President Xi Jinping had spoken of his desire to avoid the Thucydides Trap - an academic theory that sees a risk of rivalry between a rising and an established power turning into conflict.

"If avoiding the Thucydides Trap is a core objective of China's strategy, as President Xi insists it is, then we would hope that China's actions will be carefully calculated to make conflict less likely, not more," Mr Turnbull told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think- tank on Monday.

He said China should be seeking to reassure neighbours and build confidence about its intentions.

"The legitimacy of claims to reefs and shoals should be a secondary consideration when that objective is focused on," he said, referring to China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing has been building artificial islands.

Mr Turnbull urged Beijing to refrain from further militarising the South China Sea through the construction of defence facilities on reclaimed islands. He stated that rival claims should be settled under international law, and referred to a case the Philippines has brought in the arbitration court in The Hague over its competing claims with China.

Beijing yesterday accused Manila of scaremongering by saying China had warned a small civilian plane carrying Philippine officials that it was trespassing as they inspected an island in the disputed South China Sea. The Philippines said the incident happened on Jan 7 to an aircraft inspecting Thitu island in the Spratlys, where Manila plans to set up surveillance equipment, as it flew near a China-built isle.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reiterated that China has sovereignty over the Spratlys, and that the Philippines had illegally occupied eight islands there since the 1970s, including Thitu, and had been building on them.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, said to have huge oil and gas deposits, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to the sea.

Mr Turnbull, who has to find a balance between China and Washington, stressed that a strong and enduring US presence was needed in Asia to ensure the region's unprecedented economic growth continued.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Avoid conflict, Aussie PM urges China'. Print Edition | Subscribe