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South China Sea: Julie Bishop Says Missile Launchers Shouldn’t Deter Flights

Commercial planes should continue flying over the South China Sea despite the risk of “miscalculation” from the apparent placement of surface-to-air missile launchers in the disputed region, Julie Bishop has said.

Australia’s foreign affairs minister, who raised the “deeply worrying” issue during her visit to Beijing last week, said her Chinese counterparts had neither confirmed nor denied reports of the recent deployment to Woody Island.

“They said that in any event they were entitled to establish self-defence facilities,” Bishop told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday.

“We are talking about an area where civilian aircraft pass through, where there’s a lot of navigation, because it’s a significant trade route, not only for Australia but for other countries … My point is that if there are surface-to-air missiles in an area where commercial aircraft fly, then there is a risk of miscalculation.”

Asked how the commercial airline industry should respond to the risk, Bishop said commercial ships and planes “should continue as normal … because China has undertaken not to militarise”.

She reaffirmed Australia’s calls for all countries claiming territory in the South China Sea to cease land reclamation work.

“A number of claimants have reclaimed land and constructed things but the scope and scale and speed of China’s activities have dwarfed those of all others,” Bishop said.

The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and his New Zealand counterpart, John Key, made a similar call in a joint statement after bilateral talks in Sydney on Friday. They said all claimants should take steps to ease tensions in the vital trade route.

Tensions rose last week after Beijing appeared to install batteries of eight missile launchers and a radar system on Woody Island, which is part of the Paracel Island chain and is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Images of the equipment were taken by the private company ImageSat International and the development was subsequently confirmed by the Taiwanese defence ministry.

The Chinese foreign affairs minister, Wang Yi, was asked about the reports after a meeting with Bishop on Wednesday. Wang did not deny that missile launchers had been installed but said the reports were an attempt by certain western media to create news stories.

“As for the limited and necessary self-defence facilities China has built on islands and reefs stationed by Chinese personnel, that is consistent with the self-defence and self-preservation China is entitled to under international law,” Wang said.

Several other countries have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, including Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

Australia does not have any territorial claims in the region but has repeatedly emphasised the importance of freedom of navigation.

The Labor opposition’s defence spokesman, Stephen Conroy, has called on the government to send a military plane or ship within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands, because countries like Australia should “demonstrate that they are not prepared to be bullied by China” over the unresolved territorial claims.

Feb. 20, 2016 on The Guardian

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