Australia, Indonesia consider joint naval patrols in flashpoint waters

By Reuters   October 31, 2016 | 06:34 pm PT
"This is part of our engagement in the region and this is in accordance with Australia's right of freedom of navigation."

Australia is considering joint naval patrols with Indonesia in the contested South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on Tuesday.

Bishop said Indonesia's request for joint patrols at a bilateral meeting in Bali last week was "consistent with our policies of exercising our right of freedom of navigation."

"That's in accordance with international law and our support for peace and stability in the region," Bishop told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, has previously drawn criticism from China for running surveillance flights over disputed islands in the South China Sea and supporting U.S. freedom of navigation exercises there.

China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea where about $5 trillion of sea-borne trade transits annually, last month urged Australia to "speak and act cautiously" on the South China Sea.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on parts of the sea, which is believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.

Australia and Indonesia already conduct joint sea patrols in the Timor Sea as part of the countries' partnership on combating people smuggling and illegal fishing.

Bishop said that Australia and Indonesia would notify other countries in the region of any planned exercise.

"This is a regular part of what our navy does. This is part of our engagement in the region and this is in accordance with Australia's right of freedom of navigation including in the South China Sea," she said.

In July, an arbitration court in the Hague said China's claims to the waterway were invalid, after a case was brought by the Philippines. Beijing, which has built a number of artificial islands with landing strips in the sea, has refused to recognize the ruling.

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