China tells Australia off over South China Sea stance

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image provided by the US Navy. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS/BLOOMBERG) - China's naval chief has told his Australian counterpart that his country's actions on the South China Sea run counter to the general trend of peace and stability in the disputed waterway.

Meeting in Beijing, China's navy commander Shen Jinlong told Australian Vice-Admiral Tim Barrett that at present the situation in the South China Sea was "steady and good", China's Defence Ministry said in a statement late on Thursday (Dec 14).

"But in the last year, the Australian military's series of actions in the South China Sea have run counter to the general trend of peace and stability," the ministry cited Shen as saying, without pointing to any specific examples.

"This does not accord with the consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries nor the atmosphere of the forward steps in cooperation in all areas between the two countries," Shen added.

"This also is not beneficial to the overall picture of regional peace and stability."

Australia, a close ally of the United States, has repeatedly expressed concern over the disputed South China Sea, where China has built manmade islands, some of which are equipped with runways, surface-to-air missiles and radars.

Australia has previously drawn criticism from China for running surveillance flights over the South China Sea and supporting US freedom of navigation exercises there.

However, Australia has not conducted a unilateral freedom of navigation voyage of its own.

China claims most of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway where US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) worth of goods passes every year. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have overlapping claims.

China has continued to install high-frequency radar and other facilities that can be used for military purposes on its man-made islands in the South China Sea, a US think-tank said on Thursday.

China has begun work or completed building infrastructure on about 29ha of land on outposts in the South China Sea this year, according to a report by the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

While the global focus has been on North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programmes, China has been quietly developing facilities from underground storage areas to hangers and radar arrays on reefs in the sea.

The new real estate is on reclaimed land at Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief reefs in the Spratlys chain, and North, Tree, and Triton features in the Paracels.

"Beijing remains committed to advancing the next phase of its build-up - construction of the infrastructure necessary for fully-functioning air and naval bases on the larger outposts," the report said.

In August, Australia, Japan and the United States urged South-east Asia and China to ensure that a South China Sea code of conduct they have committed to draw up will be legally binding and said they strongly opposed "coercive unilateral actions".

In recent days, China and Australia have also traded barbs over Canberra's allegation that Beijing had sought to interfere in Australian politics, with China summoning Australia's ambassador to complain last week.

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