In the latest flurry of diplomatic notes to the United Nations on the South China Sea dispute, China has lashed out at Australia for declaring Beijing’s expansive maritime claims illegal, while Malaysia reiterated that it too did not accept China’s stance on the contested waters.
China’s statement, accusing U.S. ally Australia of violating “basic principles of international relations,” came as China’s military conducted night-time drills with bomber planes over the South China Sea.
According to China’s Ministry of Defense, the air arm of China’s navy simulated nighttime take-offs, air raids, and attacks on targets at sea with H-6G and H-6J bomber aircraft. That followed a series of military drills by rival parties in the region in recent weeks that have heightened tensions.
At the U.N., China reaffirmed its South China Sea claims in a diplomatic note Wednesday addressed to the world body’s secretary-general. It was posted to the website of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf alongside other recent notes from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the United States, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
“Australia’s wrongful acts of ignoring the basic facts on the South China Sea issues and denying China’s land territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea have violated international law and basic principles of international relations, including the Charter of the United Nations,” China’s note said.
China also reaffirmed its belief in holding sovereignty over the waters and land features in the South China Sea, claiming “historic rights” to the area as well as 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones around the rocks and reefs that comprise the Spratly and Paracel archipelagoes.
Australia rejected these claims in its own note to the UN on July 23 -- similar to one issued by the U.S. on June 1 – stating China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea were illegal. It urged China to abide by the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration award that struck down the legal basis for China’s claims in the region. The U.S., the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia have all recently cited the 2016 award or parts of it when rebuking China’s position on the South China Sea. China refuses to acknowledge the outcome of that landmark case.
The U.S.-Australia Alliance
China’s brusque response to Australia reflects an increasingly tense relationship. It came a day after Australia and the U.S. held high-level talks in Washington and pledged to cooperate on defense issues, making a tough, joint public stand against China.
Ashley Townshend, director of Foreign Policy and Defense at the United States Studies Center, said Tuesday’s U.S.-Australia joint statement implied that Australia will take a more active role in Southeast Asia and in the multi-nation efforts to push back against Beijing.
He noted that the statement referred to a one-off joint exercise of U.S. and Australian naval ships near a Malaysian-contracted drillship that was the object of a month-long pressure campaign by China’s Coast Guard and survey fleet in April. Townshend predicted more such exercises among nations, “designed to alter China’s calculus when it comes to harassing smaller regional navies and coast guards or commercial ships.”
Malaysia submitted its own note to the U.N. on Wednesday as well, disputing China’s “nine dash line” that roughly demarcates its claims to most of the South China Sea and China’s insistence on “historic rights” to the area.
“The Government of Malaysia considers that the People’s Republic of China’s claim to the maritime features in the South China Sea has no basis under international law. Therefore, the Government of Malaysia rejects in its entirety the content of the Note Verbale of the People’s Republic of China,” Malaysia’s latest note to the U.N. reads.
Back in December, it was Malaysia’s initial claim to an extended continental shelf off its coast in a submission to the U.N. that triggered the series of diplomatic notes by various nations. A half-dozen Asian governments have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signaled at a Senate hearing that more exercises and drills between the U.S. and its allies were in store.
“In the Indo-Pacific, Australia declared China’s South China Sea claims unlawful and illegitimate, as have we,” he said during wide-ranging testimony to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State Department’s 2021 budget request.
“And we’re proud to have stepped up maritime maneuvers in that body of water alongside our friends from Australia and Japan and the United Kingdom,” he said.
Australia performed a trilateral exercise with the United States and Japan in the Philippine Sea last week, and the increasing presence of the U.S. and its allies in and near the South China Sea has prompted China to respond in kind.