Canberra, February 23, AZERTAC
One of the United States' most senior navy commanders has said he would like Australia to carry out naval patrols close to territory claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea - a move that would provoke significant anger within the Chinese government, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, Commander of the massive, Japan-based 7th Fleet, stressed the call was Australia's, but went further than any senior US defence figure has gone previously in bluntly saying it would be valuable for other countries including Australia to challenge Beijing's assertiveness rather than leave it to the US.
Admiral Aucoin's remarks in Sydney come just a week after it emerged that China has placed missiles on islands in the contested waters of the South China Sea. They also come ahead of the anticipated release of the Turnbull government's Defence white paper, which will focus heavily on building Australia's maritime power in response to the growing uncertainty in Asia provoked by China's rise.
Admiral Aucoin said he wished the challenge to Beijing's island-building and unilateral territorial claims in the strategically vital waters were not "portrayed as the US versus China" but rather that "all countries, no matter what the size or strength can pursue their interests based on the law of the sea".
Sailing within 12 nautical miles constitutes a challenge to territorial claims as this is the distance sovereignty extends from land into the sea.
Admiral Aucoin's comments go considerably further than any US figure has done before. Admiral Aucoin, who is visiting several cities including Canberra, said he was discussing the South China Sea with Australian counterparts but had "not specifically" discussed patrols within 12 nautical miles.
As commander of the 7th Fleet - the US's largest - Admiral Aucoin is in charge of the two US ships that have so far carried out such patrols.
Admiral Aucoin also vowed that the presence of Chinese missiles on islands would not deter the US from continuing freedom of navigation operations.
He said he was surprised and concerned by the "scale and speed" of China's island-building, which he condemned as "destabilising".
"The scale and the speed of the reclamation of China has been alarming … I don't know what their intentions are, but … we're going to sail, fly, operate in these waters and be prepared for any contingency."
About two thirds of Australia's trade passes through the South China Sea. But the waters are the subject of territorial disputes between China and neighbours including Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. Tensions have been exacerbated by China's rapid building of artificial islands complete with military-grade runways and ports. That took another major step last week with the revelation that Beijing had placed surface-to-air missiles on the Paracel Island chain.