Senator Conroy called China’s involvement in the territory “aggressive”. (Reuters: Guang Niu)
Labor’s defence spokesman Stephen Conroy has accused China of bullying other nations over the South China Sea, and claimed the Australian Government has only been pretending to hold regular patrols in the region.
Overnight an international court in The Hague ruled China has no historic title over the waters of the South China Sea.
“China’s been engaged in an aggressive and at-times bullying performance, and has now been called out by the international court,” Senator Conroy told Radio National this morning.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has warned China that it must heed the ruling handed down in The Hague.
“To ignore it would be serious international transgression, there would be strong reputational costs,” Ms Bishop said.
She said Australia would continue to exercise its right to Freedom of Navigation in the region, but she would not confirm whether Australia would conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands.
“Australia will continue to exercise our international law rights to Freedom of Navigation and overflight, and support the right of others to do so,” she said.
But Senator Conroy said he had personally questioned Defence officials through the Senate estimates process and they had made it clear they were not authorised to engage in Freedom of Navigation exercises.
“The Government is continuing to pretend to the Australian people that it has an ongoing program of what is referred to as Freedom of Navigation operations in and around the South China Sea,” he said.
“Australia should authorise its forces to both sail and fly over the areas of the South China Sea.”
Senator Conroy said actions involving the Australian Navy and Air Force should not be telegraphed in advance.
Vietnam, China, Malaysia have eyes on the prize
Explore the conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea
|Rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping, the South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region.
At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups – the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.
|Both chains are essentially uninhabitable, but are claimed by no fewer than seven countries, eager to gain control of the vast oil and gas fields below them, as well as some of the region’s best fishing grounds.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made claims to part of the Spratlys based on the internationally recognised Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 hundred nautical miles from a country’s coastline.
|Based on the EEZ, the Philippines has the strongest claim on the Spratlys and their resources, with its EEZ covering much of the area.
However the lure of resources, and prospect of exerting greater control over shipping in the region, means that greater powers are contesting the Philippines’ claims.
|China has made extensive sovereignty claims on both the Spratlys and the Paracels to the north, based largely on historic claims outlined in a map from the middle part of the 20th Century known as the ‘Nine Dash Map’.
Taiwan also makes claims based on the same map, as it was created by the nationalist Kuomintang government, which fled to Taiwan after the communists seized power in China.
|Vietnam also claims the Spratlys and the Paracels as sovereign territory, extending Vietnam’s EEZ across much of the region and bringing it into direct conflict with China.
There have been deadly protests in Vietnam over China’s decision to build an oil rig off the Paracels.
One Chinese worker in Vietnam was killed and a dozen injured in riots targeting Chinese and Taiwanese owned factories, prompting 3,000 Chinese nationals to flee the country.
|EEZ can only be imposed based on boundaries of inhabitable land, and this has prompted all the countries making claims on the region to station personnel, and in some cases build military bases out of the water, to bolster their claim.
Building and protecting these structures has resulted in a series of stand-offs between countries in the region, each with the potential to escalate.
China has been leading the charge with these installations, and has deployed vessels to the region to protect their interests.
Chinese coast guard vessels have used a water cannon on Vietnamese vessels, as well as blockading an island where the Philippines has deployed military personnel.