Once again the Chinese government has tried to rebuke Australia for its support for an appropriate settlement of the many territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Once again, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has made clear that, while taking no position on the disputes, Australia does not recognise China’s efforts to unilaterally lay claim to the region via an aggressive program of artificial island building.
The attempted rebuke, ahead of Bishop’s trip to Beijing, is perhaps intended to test whether Australia has altered its stance of supporting a peaceful resolution and continued freedom of navigation in the area.
Correctly, Australia’s policy remains unchanged under Malcolm Turnbull. Stability in the region and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea are fundamental to Australia’s economic interests — and they are both threatened by China’s reckless efforts to impose its own hegemony on the area.
The best response Bishop can give in Beijing is the continued assertion of what Australia has long said: these disputes cannot be solved by unilateral manoeuvres by China, and its bellicose rhetoric against an international settlement only destabilises the region in a way that harms China itself. And if that earns yet further complaints from the Chinese, Bishop will know she is doing her job well.