Australia will not bow to Chinese pressure to halt surveillance flights over disputed islands in the South China Sea at the center of territorial spats between China and its regional neighbors, Defense Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday.
The Australian Defense Department said on Tuesday one of its aircraft had flown “a routine maritime patrol” over the South China Sea from Nov. 25-Dec. 4, just as the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander warned that a possible arms race could engulf the region.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade ships every year, a fifth of it heading to and from U.S. ports.
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Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also claim parts of the South China Sea.
Beijing is building seven man-made islands on reefs in the Spratly Islands, including a 3,000-metre-long (10,000-foot) airstrip on one of the sites, according to satellite imagery of the area.
Such activity has fanned regional tensions. In October, a U.S. guided missile destroyer sailed close to one of China’s man-made islands, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing. U.S. defense officials say another U.S. patrol this year is unlikely.