Conflict with China over Taiwan should not be discounted: Australia

An undated photo from the Philippine coast guard showing its personnel on a maritime exercise near Thitu Island in the disputed South China Sea. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
An undated photo from the Philippine coast guard showing its personnel on a maritime exercise near Thitu Island in the disputed South China Sea. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MELBOURNE • Conflict with China over Taiwan "should not be discounted", but Canberra will work with its allies in the region to try and maintain peace, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said yesterday.

"I don't think it (conflict) should be discounted," Mr Dutton said in an interview on the Australian Broadcasting Corp when asked whether the prospects of a conflict over Taiwan are growing.

He added that China has been increasingly clear about its reunification ambitions with Taiwan.

"People need to be realistic about the activity," Mr Dutton said. "There is militarisation of bases across the region.

"Obviously, there is a significant amount of activity and there is an animosity between Taiwan and China."

He added that while there is a high level of preparedness for the Australian defence force to meet any threats in the region against the country's allies, Canberra will work to try to maintain peace.

"We want to make sure we continue to be a good neighbour in the region, that we work with our partners and with our allies and nobody wants to see conflict between China and Taiwan or anywhere else," Mr Dutton said.

Australia's diplomatic relations with China, its largest trading partner, have worsened since Canberra called for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 which was first reported in the Chinese city Wuhan, prompting trade reprisals from Beijing.

Meanwhile, the European Union has called out China for endangering peace in the South China Sea and urged all parties to abide by a 2016 tribunal ruling which rejected most of Beijing's claims to sovereignty in the sea. China has rejected the ruling.

The EU last week released a new policy aimed at stepping up its influence in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China's rising power.

The Philippines last Friday protested to China over its failure to withdraw what it called as "threatening" boats believed to be manned by maritime militia around the disputed Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef.

"Tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region," a EU spokesman said in a statement last Saturday.

The EU also reiterated its strong opposition to "unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and international rules-based order".

It urged all parties to resolve disputes peacefully in accordance with international law, and highlighted a 2016 international arbitration that had ruled in favour of the Philippines while invalidating most of China's claims in the South China Sea.

Beijing has rejected the EU's accusation that its ships at Whitsun Reef, which China calls Niu'E Jiao, had endangered peace and security.

The Chinese mission to the EU in a statement on Saturday reiterated that the reef is part of China's Nansha Islands, or Spratly Islands, and that it was "reasonable and lawful" for Chinese fishing boats to operate there and shelter from the wind.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2021, with the headline 'Conflict with China over Taiwan should not be discounted: Australia'. Subscribe