Pacific allies the United States and Australia have issued a warning to China, saying they remain committed to freedom of navigation. That includes in the disputed South China Sea where China has built islands.
Speaking following an annual two-day meeting in Boston, the US and Australian defense and foreign ministers called on all states with claims to the disputed stretch of ocean to "halt land reclamation, construction and militarization."
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that the two nations favored peaceful resolutions to disputes and opposed "coercion and infringement on well-established international norms," in reference to rising tensions in the east and South China Sea.
"Now, make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception," Carter told reporters Tuesday (US time) at a press conference alongside US Secretary of State John Kerry, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne.
China has disputes with several of its Southeast Asian neighbors over claims to marine territory in the busy strategic route through which trillions of dollars in trade passes every year. Beijing has taken to building artificial islands to bolster its claims. On the weekend China announced two lighthouses it had built - on part of an island chain which is also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines - had begun operating.
Sail-by in the works?
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Washington and Canberra were "on the same page" in the dispute.
"We do not take sides on the various territorial claims, but we urge all parties not to act unilaterally, to not act in a way that would escalate tensions," she said. Bishop also welcomed a pledge from Chinese President Xi Jinping that China did not intend to militarize the islands and said she hoped Beijing would stick to that.
There have been unconfirmed reports from senior US officials speaking on condition of anonymity that the United States was planning an operation to sail by the disputed islands in the coming days or weeks. US ships would pass within 12 nautical mile limit which China claims around the islands it has built, to demonstrate it does not recognize it.
se/jr (Reuters, AFP, AP)