U.S. Ally Australia to Train with China Despite South China Sea Tensions

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Fiery Cross Reef, South China Sea (DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)

The Australian Navy will reportedly proceed with an anticipated training exercise with Chinese ships next week, despite escalating military tensions between the United States and China in the South China Sea.

Two Royal Australian Navy frigates—HMAS Stuart and HMAS Arunta—are expected to visit China’s Zhanjiang this weekend, before the live firing exercise with Chinese ships on Monday, reports the state-run Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

Despite recent incidents, the long-planned exercise will go on as scheduled, said Marise Payne, the defense minister of Australia.

“The Royal Australian Navy has a long history of engagement with regional navies and regularly conducts port visits and exercises—including in China,” Payne said in a statement.

“There have been no changes or delays to the schedule of the HMAS Arunta and HMAS Stuart since the United States activity in the South China Sea on 27 October 2015,” she added.

On Monday, the U.S. deployed its guided missile destroyer Lassen within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China on a reef in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands, as part of its challenge to China’s territorial claims in the region.

The artificial island is one of at least seven construction projects intended to establish China’s sovereignty claims in waters where several nations dispute territory.

Australia was not asked to join the U.S. exercise in the South China Sea and had no plans to do so, said Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

“We have joint exercises with the United States navy, we have joint exercises with the Chinese navy—so we will continue to operate in that region,” she told reporters.

“We believe fundamentally in the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight and we will continue to do that in accordance with international law,” added Bishop.

The Royal Australian Navy became the first and only Western defense force to conduct “live firing” exercises with Chinese ships back in 2011.

U.S. and Chinese navy chiefs talked for about an hour Thursday morning, a conversation that was prompted by the passage of the American destroyer near waters claimed by China.

“Few details were released following the call, other than to confirm the admirals spoke about freedom of navigation operations, the relationship between the two navies, pending port visits, senior leader engagement, and the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue,” reports Defense News.

“It was the first one-to-one discussion between Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations [CNO] and Adm. Wu Shengli, commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, since Richardson took office in mid-September as CNO, succeeding Adm. Jon Greenert,” it adds.

The two leaders spoke via video teleconference on Thursday, reportedly at the request of the Chinese.

“U.S. freedom of navigation operations are global in scope and executed across a wide range of maritime claims. The operations serve to protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law,” noted Lt. Cmdr. Bashon Mann, a spokesman for Adm. Richardson’s, in a statement released after the two naval leaders spoke. “Freedom of navigation operations are not a challenge to the sovereignty of land features. The United States takes no position on competing sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea.”