Australia has announced “ there is no legal basis ”to China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, marking an escalation of recent tensions with Beijing and putting Canberra further in line with Washington.
The declaration, made in a submission to the United Nations on Thursday, comes after the United States hardened its stance earlier this month, accusing Beijing of a “ completely unlawful … policy of bullying ” to regulate the sea.
The declaration to the UN said: “Australia rejects China’s claim to ‘historic rights’ or ‘maritime rights and interests’ as established in the ‘long course of historical practice’ in the South China Sea.”
It notes “the Tribunal in the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Award found these claims to be inconsistent with UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and, to the extent of that inconsistency, invalid”.
“There is no legal basis for China to draw straight baselines connecting the outermost points of maritime features or ‘island groups’ in the South China Sea, including around the ‘Four Sha’ or ‘continental’ or ‘outlying’ archipelagos,” it said.
“Australia rejects any claims to internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf based on such straight baselines.
“Australia also rejects China’s claims to maritime zones generated by submerged features, or low-tide elevations in a manner inconsistent with UNCLOS. Land building activities or other forms of artificial transformation cannot change the classification of a feature under UNCLOS … the Australian government does not accept that artificially transformed features can ever acquire the status of an island.”
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said Australia needed to defend the “national interest” when asked about the change in position on Saturday morning.
“We also need to stand up for international law,” he said. “And the international law of the sea provides for freedom of navigation which is absolutely critical to international trade.”
Tensions between Australia and China escalated earlier this year as Canberra pushed for an inquiry into Beijing’s initial handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, with Australia’s trade minister, Simon Birmingham, complaining his Chinese counterpart would not answer his calls in May.
Since then, China has issued a warning to its citizens, and lucrative international student market, not to travel to Australia out of fears of racism.
In June, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused Australia of mass espionage and of “stoking confrontation”.
Rising tensions have prompted Australian business leaders, who are worried further hostilities could damage exports to China, to call for a “separation of powers” between Australia’s foreign relations and trade ties.