A senior Chinese official has warned Australia not to join in any US sea patrols aimed at challenging China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea in the wake of last week’s ruling by the international tribunal in The Hague.
In a briefing for Australian journalists visiting China, led by former Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, the official from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China was “very disappointed” at some comments which had been made in Australia after the ruling.
Mr Cong Peiwu, director general of the Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China was prepared to “take very serious counter measures” if countries like Australia became involved in sea patrols close to the disputed islands “under the pretext of freedom of navigation” exercises.
Mr Cong also argued that Australia should not be supporting the legitimacy of the ruling which China strongly disputes, arguing that it is “null and void.”.
Speaking in answers to questions from journalists, which referred to statements by ALP spokesman Stephen Conroy who raised the issue of Australian involvement in island patrols, Mr Cong said China had “noted comments made by both the Federal Government and the Labor Party” on the “so called ruling” and the issue of whether Australia should join in patrols with the US inside the disputed waters.
“We are very disappointed (with the suggestion by ALP spokesman Senator Conroy) and opposed to it,” he said.
Mr Cong described the ruling, which China argues is “null and void” as “bad for foreign relations and peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
“We are very unsatisfied with what some countries have said,” he said.
He said this included the possibility of Australia becoming involved in sea patrols of the islands.
“We are in favour of freedom of navigation but we are opposed to other countries challenging China’s sovereignty under the pretext of freedom of navigation,” he said.
He said if Australia and other countries wanted “to see peace and stability and freedom of navigation” in the region, they should not “support the so called award and make irresponsible comments.”
He said they should also not conduct patrols in the region and they should support China’s position on the islands.
Mr Cong said China would regard it as a “very serious matter” if Australia became involved in patrols designed to challenge China’s sovereignty of the islands.
“This is a very serious matter which challenges the sovereignty and security of China and we would take very serious counter measures.”
The official’s comments represent a direct criticism of the Federal Government’s position on the ruling which supports the legitimacy of the tribunal.
While the Federal Government has appeared to rule out suggestions about whether it might be involved in any sea patrols in the wake of the ruling, the comments made it clear that China has noted that Australia has not challenged the legitimacy of the ruling itself.
Mr Cong, who once worked in the Chinese Embassy in Canberra as a junior diplomat, said the China-Australia relationship was one “based on mutual trust and mutual benefit.”
He said any Australian involvement in sea patrols would undermine this basis for the relationship and “was not acceptable to China.”
“Practical co-operation would be damaged as well,” he said.
But Mr Cong shied away from suggestions that Australian political leaders were being too swayed by the US in their response to the issue.
“The politicians of Australia have their own views,” he said.
“They can see the importance of the Australia-China relationship.”
He noted that Australia’s recognition of China, under the Whitlam Government, was made before the US recognised China.
“I think people inside Australia will see the China-Australia relationship as one of mutual trust and benefit.”
He described the Australia-China relationship as “one of the most important relationships in the region.”
Mr Carr, who heads up the Australia China Relations Institute at UTS, who was in the meeting, urged the Chinese Government to pay attention to what Australian governments did rather than be too focused on the words they used when it came to the issue.
Mr Carr said it was clear that the Chinese were “agitated” by statements made in Australia over the ruling supporting the arbitration and urging resolution in line with the tribunal’s decision.
“I urge them to give more weight to what Australia actually does than to what it says,” he said.
He said it was “significant that in commenting on Shadow Minister Conroy both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister appeared to rule out” Australia becoming involved in US sea patrols.
“In my view China would be advantaged by moving to reach agreements with countries which it is in dispute over maritime territory,” Mr Carr said.
“Particularly agreements which set aside agreements over sovereignty and jointly develop resources, splitting the proceeds.”
Mr Carr said Australia was one of a group of countries which had spoken out in support of the ruling.
But he said that there was no request from the US to join in patrols in the South China Sea.
He said the only specific suggestion of such a move had come from two retired US admirals.
“If Australia ran patrols, it would be the only American partner opting to take that course,” he said.
“It would be a stand out gesture made at the request, it would seem, of two US admirals.”
Mr Cong also urged the Federal Government to help facilitate more Chinese investment in Australia.
He noted that at least one major Chinese investment in Australia, the proposal to buy the Kidman cattle estate, had been rejected on national interest grounds.
He said he hoped the Federal Government could take measures to “make investment in Australia more convenient.”
He said he hoped the Australian Government would give the decision on the Kidman deal a “second thought.”
“I hope the Australian side will view China’s investment in Australia as being mutually beneficial.”
Glenda Korporaal is in China as a guest of the All-China Journalists Association.