MANILA, Philippines — Top American and Australian officials reaffirmed their commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed South China Sea in response to China’s expanded militarization in the region.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne stressed that militarization of the contested waterway is contrary to the region’s goal of peaceful development.
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“Both sides called for the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea to be consistent with existing international law, as reflected in UNCLOS, to support existing regional architecture, to reinforce the parties’ commitment to cease actions that complicate disputes and not to prejudice the interests of third parties or the rights of all states under international law,” the joint statement after the Australia-US consultations read.
In a press briefing, Mattis said that both countries are aligned with what they want as an “end state” the region, particularly a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The US Defense chief noted that South China Sea features that have never been militarized before have been militarized by China.
In response to an American congressman who said that he would like to see Australia conduct a unilateral freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, Mattis said that would be a “sovereign decision by a sovereign state.”
“And we coordinate, collaborate across the realm in terms of our military exercises, our military operations. And right now, we’ll just leave that decision with the people of Australia, which is exactly where it belongs,” Mattis said.
Joe Courtney, co-chair of the Friends of Australia caucus in US Congress, earlier said that Australia conducting its own freedom of navigation operation against China would shift the strategic momentum in the region.
Bishop, however, had rejected Courtney’s call for Australia to conduct a unilateral freedom of navigation operation against China as it would be the first that they would do anywhere in the world, according to a report from The Australian.
“We will continue to do what we’ve always done (and) we have certainly stepped up the tempo of our passage through the South China Sea in international waters,” Bishop said before the meeting with US top officials.