One of the most powerful figures in the United States military has called on Australia to follow America’s lead by launching “freedom of navigation” naval operations within 12 nautical miles of contested islands in the South China Sea.
The Commander of the US Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph P Aucoin, is visiting Australia for high-level talks with defence leaders, with whom he has discussed growing concerns with Beijing’s military expansion in the region.
Speaking to reporters in Sydney, Admiral Aucoin said it would be in the region’s “best interests” if Australia and other nations sent warships within 12 nautical miles of disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Since October 2015, the US has conducted two freedom of navigation operations in the disputed territory, the most recent involving the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur, which came within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in January.
“We haven’t changed what we’re doing, we’re pretty much doing what we’ve done for decades and decades; ensuring that these sea lines of communication remain open,” Admiral Aucoin said.
“And so we’ve done it, but I really wish it wasn’t portrayed as US versus China.
“Really what we’re trying to ensure here is that we’re exercising our rights and freedoms under the law of the sea.
“This shouldn’t seem provocative.
“What we’re trying to ensure is that all countries, no matter size or strength, can pursue their interests based on the law of the sea and not have that endangered by some of these actions.”
Admiral Aucoin agreed it would be “valuable” for Australia and other nations to conduct operations similar to the US.
“It’s up to those countries, but I think it’s in our best interests to make sure that those sea lines remain open, I’ll leave it at that,” he said.
Last week Labor’s defence spokesman Stephen Conroy also called for the Royal Australian Navy to test Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea by going within 12 nautical miles of contested islands.
Defence Minister Marise Payne would not comment publicly on the specific details of ADF activities, but said Australia supported each country’s rights to freedom of navigation.
“As Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin said, freedom of navigation exercises are a matter for each individual country,” the statement said.
“The Australian Government supports the rights of all states to exercise freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight under international law.
“As we do now, and have done for many years, Australian vessels and aircraft will continue to exercise rights under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea.”