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Australia to join US military exercises as China tensions grow

Politics

Australia is set to join the United States in military exercises through the South China Sea after branding Beijing’s maritime claims to the disputed waters unlawful.

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Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds will meet with their US counterparts in Washington this week.

It is expected Australia will be asked to join increased US naval missions to push back against China’s militarisation of disputed territories in the South China Sea.

Labor deputy leader and defence spokesman Richard Marles said with 60 per cent of Australian shipping trade passing through the South China Sea, freedom of navigation was critical.

However, he said it was not in Australia’s interests to engage in territorial claims in the contested waters.

“We’ve got core national interests at issue in terms of navigating the South China Sea,” Marles told ABC radio on Tuesday.

“As a matter of principle that (freedom of navigation exercises) does need to be on the table.”

The US has been conducting an increasing number of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea and has made no secret that it would like to see other nations — including Australia — do the same.

“We would always like to see more like-minded countries participate because then it builds that international consensus and puts pressure on the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to conform to that international consensus,” said one senior US official.

Successive Australian governments have directed naval vessels to sail through the South China Sea, but never within 12 nautical miles of land features claimed by Beijing.

But the US senior official said if more nations conducted operations in the region it might actually reduce tensions in the region by “removing the US-China binary from the equation”.

If there’s a benefit to any anxiety caused by Scott Morrison’s bleak outlook of security in our region, it’s that it will save time.

“This is not China against the US as they like to portray it, this is China against like-minded [nations]” they said.

“Whether another country does a FONOP or just sail together or do more joint operations … that reinforces the message that we are standing up for the rules-based order and China is the one diverting from that.”

Debate over the Chinese Government’s behaviour in the crucial trade waters of the South China Sea flared up again as the broader contest between Washington and Beijing intensifies.

-AAP

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