Tensions escalate in South China Sea as 'Australia rejects China’s claim'

·News Reporter
·2-min read

Australia has taken a significant stance in an ongoing maritime dispute over China’s attempt to claim ownership of islands, and surrounding waters, in the South China Sea.

While Australia had previously refrained from expressing a firm position in the matter, a letter from the government to the United Nations on July 23 made its strong opposition to China’s intentions clear, aligning itself with Donald Trump’s White House as it ramps up a campaign against China.

In the notable assertion by the Australian government, the letter stated that it rejected “any claims by China that are inconsistent with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”.

An aerial view of Southwest Cay islet, part of the Spratly islands, being claimed by Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea. Source: AAP
China has angered regional nations including Vietnam and the Philippines in the dispute. Source: AAP

“In particular, maritime claims that do not adhere to its rules on baselines, maritime zones and classification of features,” the letter read.

“Australia rejects China’s claim to ‘historic rights’ or ‘maritime rights and interests’ as established in the Tong course of historical practice’ in the South China Sea.”

“The Tribunal in the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Award found these claims to be inconsistent with UNCLOS and, to the extent of that inconsistency, invalid.”

The letter dismissed China’s contentious claims to the Spratly Islands and Parcel Islands as “invalid”, claiming there was “no legal basis for China to draw straight baselines connecting the outermost points of maritime features or ‘island groups’ in the South China Sea”.

US Navy vessels shown sailing within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago in 2015. Source: AAP
US Navy vessels shown sailing within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago in 2015. Source: AAP

Ownership over the islands has long been subject to a dispute between the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and China.

“The Australian Government encourages all claimants in the South China Sea, including China, to clarify their maritime claims and resolve their differences peacefully, in accordance with international law, particularly UNCLOS,” Australia’s letter stated.

The divisive letter is the latest addition to tension between Australia and China following Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call in April for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak.

It marks a notable departure from the government’s long held position and significantly raises the stakes in what is already tense times between Beijing and Canberra.

It comes amid fears an increasingly bellicose White House could push China to the brink of conflict in the region.

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