Australia, Japan, and the United States have taken a thinly veiled verbal swipe at China’s provocative conduct in the South China Sea, decrying what they called “dangerous or coercive” use of coastguard vessels and maritime militia and efforts to disrupt oil exploration.
The allied nations issued the strong joint statement after their defense ministers met in Washington on Tuesday to discuss security in the Indo-Pacific as they step up cooperation in the face of an increasingly assertive China. In the latest sign of that, Japan’s navy drilled Wednesday in the South China Sea with two U.S. aircraft carriers.
Australian Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds, Japanese Minister of Defense Kono Taro and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper primarily discussed the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but also underlined the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The ministers “expressed serious concern about recent incidents, including the continued militarization of disputed features, dangerous or coercive use of coast guard vessels and ‘maritime militia,’ and efforts to disrupt other countries’ resource exploitation activities,” the joint statement said.
Although the statement did not explicitly mention China, the statement follows a sequence of Chinese actions that have unnerved its neighbors. That includes the recent deployment of survey ships into Malaysian and Vietnamese waters, widely viewed as an attempt to pressure those nations out of exploring for oil with international partners. Currently, a China Coast Guard ship is at Vanguard Bank in the Spratly Islands off Vietnam, the scene of a prolonged standoff last year between China and Vietnam over similar issues.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added his own criticism on Wednesday – drawing a link between tensions happening at many of China’s contested land and maritime borders. That includes a simmering dispute at a mountain frontier where Chinese and Indian troops were engaged in deadly hand-to-hand fighting last month.
"From the mountain ranges of the Himalayas to the waters of Vietnam's Exclusive Zone, to the Senkaku Islands, and beyond, Beijing has a pattern of instigating territorial disputes. The world shouldn’t allow this bullying to take place, nor should it permit it to continue," Pompeo said at a press conference in Washington.
China was quick to respond to the allies’ joint statement of Tuesday, insisting that the South China Sea – which Beijing claims largely for itself – was currently stable. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, however, alluded to U.S. military deployments in the region as a threat to that stability.
“Out of selfish motives, certain non-regional countries frequently hype up matters related to the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and even send advanced military vessels and aircraft in a massive scale to the relevant waters in a bid to promote militarization and threaten peace and stability in the region,” Zhao told a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday. “China firmly opposes that.”
The current round of military posturing began when China conducted a naval exercise in the South China Sea’s disputed Paracel Islands last week, prompting diplomatic outcry from Vietnam, the United States, and the Philippines. The U.S. subsequently began its dual aircraft carrier drill within sight of the Paracels at the weekend.
Although neither U.S., Australia nor Japan are South China Sea claimants, they appear to be taking a firmer stance and are making greater effort to show presence in the region.
On Wednesday, Japan’s navy practiced alongside the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz, according to a release by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. It’s the first time the U.S. has deployed two aircraft carriers at once in the South China Sea in at least four years.
In their statement Tuesday, the three defense ministers called for a “peaceful resolution of disputes” in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China bases its sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea on “historic rights” to its waters and land features – a position that has never been supported by UNCLOS and was struck down in a key 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in a case brought by the Philippines against China.
“With regard to the South China Sea, the ministers reinforced strong opposition to the use of force or coercion to alter the status quo, and reaffirmed the importance of upholding freedom of navigation and overflight,” the defense ministers’ statement read.
The emphasis on overflight closely mirrors a statement made by the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a summit in late June, and echoes ASEAN’s concerns over speculation that China may unilaterally establish an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, restricting commercial air travel in the region.
Australia, for its part, unveiled a new defense strategy on July 1 explicitly citing China’s so-called “grey-zone activities” in the South China Sea – a reference to China’s aggressive use of paramilitary fishing fleets and its coastguard against vessels of other nations -- as a focus for its military planning.
Australia is currently conducting a military exercise with Brunei, an oft-overlooked South China Sea claimant state. Dubbed ‘Exercise Penguin’, the drills involve the two nations’ navies and air forces and runs until July 14. Australia sent an advanced maritime surveillance aircraft, the P-8A Poseidon, in advance of the drills.