SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia will not bow to Chinese pressure to halt surveillance flights over disputed islands in the South China Sea at the center of rival claims between China and some of its neighbors, Defense Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday.
The Australian Defense Department said on Tuesday one of its aircraft had flown “a routine maritime patrol” over the South China Sea from Nov. 25 to Dec. 4, just as the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander warned that a possible arms race could engulf the region.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade ships every year, a fifth of it heading to and from U.S. ports.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also claim parts of the South China Sea.
China is building seven man-made islands on reefs in the Spratly Islands, including a 3,000-metre-long (10,000-foot) airstrip on one of the sites, according to satellite imagery.
Such activity has fanned regional tension. In October, a U.S. guided missile destroyer sailed close to one of China’s man-made islands, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing. U.S. defense officials say another U.S. patrol this year is unlikely.
Payne said Canberra would not be deterred by warnings from Beijing, which again responded angrily to the Australian patrol, and described the flights as a routine part of Australia’s role in helping to maintain regional stability and security.
“We always navigate in a very constructive way in the region,” she told reporters in Adelaide.
China’s Foreign Ministry, asked about the Australian flights, said this week countries outside the region should not “deliberately complicate the issue”.
Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Thursday he had nothing to add.
Chinese media has not been so restrained.
On Wednesday, influential tabloid the Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, implied there could be military retaliation if Australia persisted with the patrols.
“Australian military aircraft had better not regularly come to the South China Sea to add to the trouble, and especially not test China’s patience by getting close to China’s islands and reefs,” it said in an editorial.
China and Australia are friends and should act that way, it said.
“It really ought not to happen that one day, due to a freak combination of factors, coincidentally an aircraft was downed and it just happened to be Australian.”
Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Paul Tait