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Australia won't join new patrols of South China Sea, minister says

By GREG AHLSTRAND | Bloomberg | Published: October 15, 2015

HONG KONG —Australia wouldn't take part in any U.S. naval patrols aimed at testing China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and isn't taking sides in disputes over one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, Trade Minister Andrew Robb said.

Robb's remarks came after Foreign Minister Julie Bishop met Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry this week and said Australia is "on the same page" with the U.S. on the sea, a $5 trillion-a-year shipping route that the American Navy has patrolled largely unchallenged since World War II.

The U.S. is reportedly considering sailing warships into the 12-nautical-mile zone that China claims around man-made islands in the South China Sea, a body of water also claimed in part by the likes of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan. Such an incursion would mark a significant expansion of the aerial and sea surveillance that the U.S. and other nations currently conduct, and risk an escalation of tensions.

"On that issue, we're not taking sides," Robb said Thursday in an interview with Bloomberg TV in Hong Kong. "We wouldn't participate in any surveillance or whatever other activities the United States might have talked about."

Australia needs to walk a fine line with China, seeking to protect trade routes to its north without straining ties with its biggest trading partner, a large buyer of its iron ore and coal.

"Nearly three-quarters of our trade moves through that South China Sea, so I think it's quite legitimate for us to have a view on the need to make sure that we've got passage," Robb said.

Then-Defence Minister Kevin Andrews said in late May that Australia would continue surveillance flights over the South China Sea. "We have been surveilling the area for close to 35 years," he said. "We are doing it currently and we will continue to do it in the future."

China claims more than 80 percent of the waters, based on a so-called nine-dash line in a 1940s map. Under President Xi Jinping, China has been dredging and dumping tons of sand to turn reefs into islands and has put in a runway that may be capable of landing military aircraft.

China responded this week to the remarks in Boston by accusing "other" countries of causing tension in the region.

"It should be pointed out that certain countries have been flexing military muscles in the South China Sea over recent period of times," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters at a press briefing. "The Chinese side is severely concerned about that. We hope that relevant countries could stop playing up the issue of South China Sea, make good on their commitment of not taking sides on issues concerning territorial sovereignty."

Robb indicated the issue would not drive a wedge between China and Australia.

"We've got our interests and China's got its interests and sometimes they'll differ; in many cases, they're identical," he said in the interview. "Our relationship has never been better. "

A map of the South China Sea and the countries that occupy the region.
COURTESY OF U.S. GOVERNMENT

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