Australia concerned over 'destabilizing actions' in South China Sea - envoy

Davinci Maru, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 29 2021 01:01 PM | Updated as of Mar 29 2021 01:31 PM

Australia concerned over 'destabilizing actions' in South China Sea - envoy 1
Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies, AFP/ Handout

MANILA - Australia expresses concern over recent "destabilizing actions" in the South China Sea, its envoy to the Philippines said Monday, as China continues its assertive maritime agenda in the vital waterway.

"Australia supports an Indo-Pacific region which is secure, stable and sovereign. The South China Sea, [which] is a critical international waterway, is governed by international rules and norms, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is very important to us," Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson told ANC.

"As a consequence, we remain concerned about any destabilizing actions that could provoke escalation in the South China Sea."

Around 200 Chinese vessels have been monitored since March 7 at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea, an incursion that Manila has formally protested against and several countries have sounded alarm on.

Philippine officials have demanded the withdrawal of the ships, with a retired Supreme Court judge warning their presence may be a prelude to occupation and building of a naval base as China did on Mischief Reef in 1995.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila had denied allegations the vessels are part of Beijing's militia, describing them as fishing vessels taking shelter due to “rough sea conditions.” It also insisted that the reef is part of their territory.

Robinson said Australia supports a 2016 ruling by a UN-backed arbitration court in The Hague that rejected China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea, of which the West Philippine Sea is a part, by invalidating its history-based 9-dash line doctrine.

Beijing, which continues to ignore the landmark ruling, has been accused of militarizing also the marine resources- and energy-rich South China Sea, a major international trade route. 

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"What we want to really see in the South China Sea is freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded trade and adherence to international rules that we've all used and subscribed for a long period of time," Robinson said.

Robinson noted that 65 percent of Australia's international trade passes through the South China Sea.

Australia is watching closely discussions on a so-called code of conduct between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he said. The Philippines and three other claimants - Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam - have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, aside from China and Taiwan.

The code of conduct has long been discussed, following China and ASEAN's 2002 agreement on a loose set of guidelines known as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

To rally international support, the Philippines should make its position clear against Chinese intrusion in its waters.

"I think it's important that the Philippines stands up for its rights and articulate its position clearly. I know the Secretaries of Defense and Foreign Affairs have done that in recent days quite precisely," the Australian ambassador said.

President Rodrigo Duterte forged friendlier ties with China since assuming office in 2016, shelving the maritime disputes in favor of economic aid and investments from the world's second largest economy.