Australia Mulls Extended Air Patrol Of South China Sea; Defence Minister Urges Code Of Conduct In Disputed Area

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Chinese patrol ship Haixun 01 is pictured during a search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, in the south Indian Ocean April 5, 2014, in this photo courtesy of China News Service. Haixun 01 detected a pulse signal in the south Indian Ocean on
Chinese patrol ship Haixun 01 is pictured during a search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, in the south Indian Ocean April 5, 2014, in this photo courtesy of China News Service. Reuters/CNSphoto

Australia has not ruled out the extension of its existing surveillance flights over the South China Sea amid escalating tensions over China’s land reclamation activities in disputed waters. Australia’s defence minister, Kevin Andrews, said Australia will continue to patrol the South China Sea.

However, Andrews made it clear that such flights were not entirely new. He said the Australian government has yet to have any formal discussion with the United States, its close ally. Canberra has moved to clarify its position following reports that the Australian government was actively considering the deployment of a P-3 surveillance aircraft within 12 miles of China’s artificial islands.

Lawyers of the Australian government believe such a flight is within the boundaries of international law since “only land features above high tide can generate territorial rights.” Stephen Conroy, the defence spokesman of the Opposition, expressed support for the surveillance flights and the freedom of navigation within 12 nautical miles of the artificial structures. He said the structures were not recognised in the international community, reports The Guardian.

“We can do that. International law is on our side,” said Conroy. A spokesperson for the defence minster said in a statement that it was in the interest of nations to ensure the right to have unencumbered transit through international waters. According to the statement, Australia will continued to navigate the South China sea including conducting surveillance missions within the country’s rights under international law.

The spokesperson said countries in the region are aware of Australia’s surveillance flights over the South China Sea for over 30 years as part of “operation gateway.” “We’ve been doing It on an ongoing basis since 1980 and will continue to in the future as part of Australia’s enduring contribution to the preservation of regional security and stability in southeast Asia,” according to the statement.

The Chinese government has objected to the U.S. military surveillance missions over the disputed area, reports SMH. A Pentagon spokesperson suggested that U.S. patrols within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands would be the next step.

Andrews told a security summit last Sunday that Australia was concerned about the possibility of China’s militarisation of artificial islands. He believes that countries should decide on the best code of conduct for the disputed area. 

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