Australia has no plans to back off sea and air patrols in the South China Sea where an increasingly bellicose China is standing firm on its territorial claims, the head of defence joint operations says.
Vice Admiral David Johnston says Australia has long conducted patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea in what’s called Operation Gateway and that hadn’t changed this year.
“The Australian navy and air force will continue to conduct overflight and sea transits through the South China Sea in accordance with and respect for international rules,” he told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.
Vice Admiral Johnston declined to say whether ships or aircraft had ever approached within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed islands or would do so.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea and inflamed regional tensions when it started building its own islands on disputed reefs, adding airstrips, radar and communications and defence systems, and troops.
It has rejected the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, insisting this is sovereign territory and a 12-nautical mile territorial limit applies.
So far the US Navy has conducted three freedom of navigation exercises, sailing within this 12-nautical mile limit.
Vice Admiral Johnston said Defence conducted contingency planning, including options for responding to developments in the South China Sea.
He said from a military perspective, it appeared likely the status quo would continue to apply, though adding: “Militarisation of features in that area is an unwelcome development”.
Vice Admiral Johnston said Australian ships and aircraft exercised freedom of navigation wherever they went, whether inside or outside a 12-nautical mile zone.