On Tuesday, the USS William P. Lawrence, a guided-missile cruiser, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Fiery Cross Reef, which is occupied by China, in a deliberate challenge to China’s aggressive territorial claims.
“These excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise,” said U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bill Urban.
China’s reaction was predictably negative, with Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang declaring that the American action “put the personnel and facilities on the islands and reefs at risk and endangered regional peace and stability.”
Australia stood up for the United States on Thursday, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull telling reporters he had expressed his support to President Obama during a phone call.
Turnbull said he and Obama “talked about security issues in our region and confirmed our strong commitment to freedom of navigation throughout the region and the importance of any territorial disputes being resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law,” as reported by Reuters.
“Australia has consistently supported U.S.-led freedom of navigation activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing has been adding land reclamation to islands and reefs in waters claimed by several regional countries,” Reuters observed.
“All states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight in the South China Sea and elsewhere, and that’s Australia’s position,” said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, quoted by Australia’s ABC News.
“I understand that the United States was simply exercising this right, as it does from time to time, and this was a routine operation,” Bishop added.
She said Australia does not “take sides in the various claims over territorial or boundary issues,” but called on all parties to “refrain from any aggressive or coercive conduct against vessels exercising their right” of navigation.
Bishop also said Australia was waiting for the results of United Nations arbitration hearings on China’s claim of 12-mile territorial waters and 200-mile exclusive economic zones around the reefs it has occupied.
As ABC notes, China’s territorial claims cover most of the South China Sea and could jeopardize some $5 trillion in annual shipping which passes through the area, as well as provoking confrontations with other nations that have competing claims.