Australia on Friday urged nations in Asia to stand up for their “independence and sovereignty,” following renewed concerns aired by allies Vietnam and the United States over China’s actions in the disputed South China Sea.
The comments by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was in Hanoi, Vietnam, for a three-day visit, came after Washington slammed Beijing for its “escalation” in the waterway, a key global shipping route where China is accused of deploying warships, arming outposts and ramming fishing vessels.
A Chinese survey ship has antagonized Hanoi since early July, sailing though waters near the Spratly Islands where Vietnam has several oil and gas projects.
The ship left for a brief period this month and then came back, prompting irate calls from Hanoi to vacate the area it says falls within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Philippines is also a claimant of the disputed Spratlys, including the municipality of Kalayaan on Pag-asa Island, some 500 kilometers (270 nautical miles) west of Palawan, and other features.
Speaking on Friday at a press conference with Morrison, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said he was “deeply concerned of recent complicated developments” in the South China Sea.
Earlier on Thursday, the United States said China’s deployment of the survey ship was “an escalation by Beijing in its efforts to intimidate other claimants out of developing resources” in the sea.
“This calls into serious question China’s commitment … to the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes,” the United States said via a statement by Department of State spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.
“China’s actions undermine regional peace and security, impose economic costs on Southeast Asian states … and demonstrate China’s disregard for the rights of countries to undertake economic activities in their EEZs,” Ortagus said.
She specifically warned Beijing not to hinder efforts by US oil and gas companies to forge partnerships with other countries in the region.
The United States, which is also locked in a trade dispute with China, regularly criticizes China’s militarization of the South China Sea, which Washington sees as a way to establish Beijing’s dominance.
A tweet by National Security Advisor John Bolton on Tuesday accused China of using “bullying tactics,” which Bolton also called “disturbing.”
On Friday, Australia added its voice to international concerns with regards to China, but without naming the Asian power or opting to “take sides.”
Morrison said Australia supports “the principle of international law,” which “is about ensuring that each and every nation in the region can have confidence in its own independence and sovereignty,” he told reporters.
Earlier, Morrison had affirmed the Pacific region as one “of sovereign interdependent states, resistant to coercion,” in comments seen as aimed at China.
Morrison’s conservative government has cozied up to Washington amid Beijing’s increasing influence in Asia.
Beijing claims the majority of the sea, often invoking its so-called nine-dash line to justify its alleged historic rights, also contested by the Philippines and other states as being irrelevant to contemporary international doctrines.