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Australia backs US, affirms Philippines' South China Sea arbitral win

Australia backs US, affirms Philippines' South China Sea arbitral win

MANILA, Philippines — Australia joined the United States, its long-time ally, in condemning China's expansive claims in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea.

In a joint statement following the 30th Australian-US Ministerial Consultations, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne, Australian Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper express serious concerns over "coercive and destablizing" actions in the Indo-Pacific region.

"In line with the 2016 decision of the Arbitral Tribunal, they affirmed that Beijing's maritime claims are not valid under international law," the joint statement read.

The 2016 arbitral ruling sided with the Philippines, invalidating China's nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea. Beijing, however, continues to reject the landmark ruling and insists indisputable sovereignty over the contested waterway.

The top Australian and American officials affirmed that Beijing cannot assert maritime claims over the South China Sea or island groups in the area, which violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Payne, Reynolds, Pompeo and Esper noted that the 2016 arbitraul ruling is final and binding on both parties and stressed that territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea must be settled in accordance with international law. 

"They also expressed their support for the rights of claimants to lawfully exploit offshore resources, including relation to long-standing oil and gas projects as well as fisheries in the South China Sea, free from harassment and coercion," the joint statement read.

US policy on South China Sea

Earlier this month, Pompeo declared a new policy on the South China Sea, challenging China's claims in the disputed waters.

"We are making clear: Beijing's claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them," Pompeo earlier said.

In a press briefing after their meeting with Australia, Pompeo said Washington will continue to work with its ally to assert the rule of law in the South China Sea.

Esper, meanwhile, commended Australia's "bold" new strategy, which he described as placing themselves at the forefront as a "very capable" partner to the US.

"And I think it’s important as we think forward about how do we deter bad behavior in the Indo-Pacific and how we defend the international rules-based order – in this case specifically with regard to China," Esper said.

Australia's freedom of navigation operations

On the part of Australia, Reynolds said they also discussed freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, adding that they have a long history of sailing through the region with other countries.

The Australian Defense chief noted that the recently joined a trilateral transit with the US and Japan through the Philippine Sea.

"Our approach remains consistent, and we will continue to transit through the region in accordance with international law," Reynolds said.

Just last week, the US Navy's USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group, five Australian warships and a Japanese destroyer conducted a trilateral naval exercise in the Philippine Sea on their way to the Rim of the Pacific Exercise in Hawaii.

Duterte 'useless' on West Philippine Sea

While naval powers US and Australia continue to assert the 2016 arbitral ruling, President Rodrigo Duterte said he cannot do anything against China's claims in the West Philippine Sea, which have already been legally invalidated. The West Philippine Sea is the portion of the South China Sea that is within Philippine exclusive economic zone.

In his fifth State of the Nation Address earlier this week, the Philippine leader insisted that asserting the Philippines' sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea would mean going to war with China.

"They (China) are in possession of the property, so what we can do? We have to go to war and I cannot afford it. Maybe some president can but we cannot. Inutil ako d'yan," Duterte said.

Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio slammed Duterte's remarks, pointing out that naval powers such as the US, UK, France, Australia, Japan and Canada regularly sail in the West Philippine Sea.

The operations of these naval powers in the West Philippine Sea prove that Beijing is not in possession of the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the area.

"The President should not say that China is in possession of our EEZ in the West Philippine Sea because factually China is not in possession," Carpio said in a statement.