South China Sea: Australia defends U.S.

Julie Bishop, Australia's Foreign Minister.

By Reuters 2016-05-12 17:55:46

Australia on Thursday backed the United States in its so-called freedom of navigation operation close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea, a patrol China has denounced as an illegal threat to peace.

U.S. guided missile destroyer the USS William P. Lawrence on Tuesday travelled within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef, in an operation undertaken to challenge excessive maritime claims by China, Taiwan and Vietnam which were seeking to restrict navigation rights in the South China Sea.

Australia has consistently supported U.S.-led freedom of navigation activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing has been adding land reclamation to islands and reefs in waters claimed by several regional countries.

"All states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight in the South China Sea," Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio on Thursday.

"I understand that the United States was simply exercising this right as it does from time to time and that this was a routine operation."

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters he had reiterated that support in a phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama early on Thursday.

"We ... talked about security issues in our region and confirmed our strong commitment to freedom of navigation throughout the region and the importance of any territorial disputes being resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law," Turnbull said.

China and the United States have traded accusations of militarizing the South China Sea as China undertakes large-scale land reclamation to create artificial islands and construction on disputed features while the United States has increased its patrols and exercises.

Facilities on Fiery Cross Reef include a 3,000-metre (10,000-foot) runway which the United States worries China will use to press its extensive territorial claims at the expense of weaker rivals.