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Australia joins list of nations rejecting China’s maritime claims in South China Sea

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) (G20 Argentina/Flickr)
July 27, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Australia has sent a diplomatic note to the United Nations rejecting China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, joining the growing list of nations that have pushed back against Beijing’s presumption of “historic rights” to the disputed waters.

The note was sent to the UN on Thursday and posted to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf’s website on Friday morning.

Australia is the latest in a small but emerging chorus of nations that are describing as illegal China’s position that it holds economic and maritime rights to nearly all of the South China Sea. China’s expansive claims overlap those of five of its neighbors.

Australia’s note follows similar diplomatic submissions from the United States, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

“The Australian Government rejects any claims by China that are inconsistent with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” the note states.

Specifically, Australia rejects China’s insistence on holding “historic rights” to the South China Sea, the drawing of “baselines” to connect its occupied rocks in the Paracel and Spratly island chains, and China’s claim to maritime zones around completely submerged features and around features only visible at low-tide conditions.

That amounts to a comprehensive rebuke of the legal basis of China’s maritime claims and aligns Australia with the new, tougher U.S. position on the South China Sea announced two weeks ago.

Beijing has bristled at its perceived encirclement by the U.S., its allies and partner nations in recent weeks. In addition to the flurry of diplomatic notes disputing China’s expansive claims, the U.S. has spearheaded a series of high-profile military drills in the South China Sea.

Australia joined U.S. aircraft carriers for exercises this month, most recently in the Philippine Sea on July 19, along with Japan.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday spoke of building “a new alliance of democracies” to confront China, in a speech that was unsparing in its criticism of China’s government as relations between the two world powers spiral downward.

That drew a sharp response from China’s top diplomat.

“Some anti-China forces in the US lately have been deliberately creating ideological opposition, blatantly coercing other countries to pick sides and confronting China for U.S.’ self-interests,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his German counterpart according to China’s readout of the call.

“But any country with conscience and independent spirit will not play a part in such actions,” he said.

Like the United States and Japan, Australia does not claim territory in the South China Sea. The governments that do are Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In its note to the U.N., Australia cites a 2016 award by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration to explain why China’s claims aren’t supported by international law. That echoes the earlier diplomatic notes sent by Indonesia, the Philippines and the U.S.

The 2016 tribunal aimed to settle a dispute between the Philippines and China over who held legal claims to the Spratly chain of rocks and reefs in the southern part of the South China Sea. That tribunal ultimately struck down virtually every basis China put forward to justify its claims.

Australia called on China to acknowledge the tribunal’s decision and abide by it – something that China, which did not participate in the tribunal’s proceedings, has refused to do.

“The rationale put forward by China as an explanation of why the Arbitral Award is not binding on China is not supported by international law,” Australia’s note reads. “Pursuant to Article 296 and Article 11 of Annex VII of UNCLOS the Tribunal’s decision is final and binding on both parties to the dispute.”