Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is in China this week, meeting with top Chinese diplomats. Along with co-chairing the Annual Foreign and Strategic Dialogue yesterday with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, Bishop also held talks with State Councilor Yang Jiechi.
Bishop’s visit came after a stop in Japan, much to China’s annoyance. Her time in Tokyo set the stage for a frosty reception in Beijing. Beyond its tangled relationship with (and deep suspicions toward) Japan, China also tends to view the U.S. alliance network in Asia – which counts both Japan and Australia as key members – as a de facto strategy for ‘containing’ China.
In a press conference with Bishop, Wang particularly aired China’s concerns over a potential Australia-Japan defense deal that could see Japan building Australia’s next generation of submarines (France and Germany are also in the running for the $20 billion contract). In particular, Wang said Australia should “take into full account this historical context and take into consideration also the feelings of Asian countries because of that history” before pursuing military cooperation with Japan. Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in 2013, China has repeatedly raised concerns about historical revisionism coupled with remilitarization.
In response to Wang’s comments, Bishop said that the evaluation process for the submarine bids was still underway. As for the historical issues Wang spoke of, Bishop said, “Australia has moved on. We moved on many years ago, in relation to both Germany and Japan.”
Meanwhile, one of Bishop’s comments in Tokyo raised hackles in Beijing, this time regarding the South China Sea. Bishop said, first, that Australia “recognize[s] the Philippines’ right to seek to resolve the [South China Sea] matter through arbitration.” Manila has filed an arbitration case challenging China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea, a suit Beijing has denounced as a violation of previous diplomatic agreements. Bishop added that “we urge all claimants to settle their disputes peacefully without coercion, without intimidation.”
She also mentioned that she wanted more information from China on how its reclaimed islands in the disputed region will provide public goods for other countries in the region. “In the past Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said they will be public goods, so I am seeking more detail as to how other nations could access these public goods,” Bishop said. Meanwhile, just before her trip the story broke that China had deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels, centering even more attention on the question of how China will use the South China Sea islands it occupies.
China responded swiftly to Bishop’s South China Sea remarks in Japan. On Tuesday, just ahead of Bishop’s arrival, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei reiterated that the Philippines arbitration case “will never be accepted by China.” Australia “should not selectively evade that objective fact,” Hong said. He also dismissed Bishop’s emphasis on continued freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, saying that China’s construction of “necessary national defense facilities on its own territory… does not impede freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.”
“The Australian side should adopt an objective and unbiased attitude and refrain from doing anything that undermines regional peace and stability,” Hong concluded.
While in Beijing, Bishop told reporters that the reports about the surface-to-air missiles were in dispute, noting that China had “challenged” the claim (without outright denying it). She said, however, that “until such time as we have a clear picture of it, of course it’s a matter of concern.” Bishop also said Australia would “certainly hold China” to President Xi Jinping’s previous statement that China does not intend to militarize the islands. China’s Foreign Ministry have said that China’s deployment of limited defense facilities “have nothing to do with militarization.”
In their meeting, Yang told Bishop that Australia should keep its promise not to take sides on the South China Sea disputes. Australia should “not participate in or adopt any measures that harm regional peace and stability and China-Australia relations,” Yang said, according to a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry.
It’s not surprising that the South China Sea issue dominated headlines during Bishop’s China trip. Aside from the timing of the Fox News report about Chinese missile deployment on the Woody Island, Australian officials have become generally more vocal about the question of freedom of navigation. Australia issued supportive statements after the two U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the region, and has been conducting its own patrols as part of Operation Gateway. Australia’s air force chief recently acknowledged that there had been a “slight increase” in Australian patrols in the South China Sea, and also noted that “nearly all” Australian surveillance flights in the area are now challenged by Chinese outposts.