Free navigation in South China Sea ‘never a problem’, says Chinese army officer


Beijing’s top military official posted to Australia has claimed freedom of navigation has “never been a problem” in the South China Sea despite the Chinese military aggressively challenging foreign ships and aircraft that pass through disputed waters or airspace.

In rare public comments, China’s defence attache Senior Colonel Wang Jingguo said it was a matter for the Australian government to decide whether to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, notably stopping short of the bellicose tone of Chinese state-owned media that warns Canberra would suffer consequences for interfering.

US officials have said they would welcome an Australian naval ship conducting a “sail through” – passing within 12 nautical miles of a disputed island – to make clear it does not recognise Chinese claims of sovereignty but thus far the government has not done so.

However, Australian warships and surveillance planes have been challenged by the Chinese military about their presence when passing through the South China Sea, including in April when three ships were transiting the sea on their way to Vietnam.

A leaked report prepared by the Philippines military last month accused China of constantly harassing Philippine patrols in the Spratly Islands, one of the hotspots.

Asked at a press conference whether Australia conducting freedom of navigation patrols would damage ties with China, Colonel Wang downplayed tensions.

“Actually freedom of navigation exercises is not a problem. It has never been a problem in the South China Sea,” Colonel Wang said.

“All countries have their rights that their aircrafts and their ships have the full rights and freedom of navigating in the South China Sea.

“Australia is an independent country. It is for the Australian government and its people to make its own decision whether to conduct this kind of freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea or not.”