CHINA’s foreign ministry has publicly rebuked “irresponsible remarks” regarding the South China Sea in an Australian white paper released this week, a document which warned of China’s rising regional influence and highlighted the need to bolster ties with “like-minded” partners.
The 115-page 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper argued that a more insular United States would be detrimental to a global “rules-based order”
“Australia believes that international challenges can only be tackled effectively when the world’s wealthiest, most innovative and most powerful country is engaged in solving them,” read the paper, which is a guide for Australian diplomacy.
“Powerful drivers are converging in a way that is reshaping the international order and challenging Australia’s interests,” it said – seemingly a thinly veiled allusion to the rise of China.
The Asian hegemon is Australia’s largest trading partner, however the country has remained concerned about the political influence of the Chinese Communist Party. China, meanwhile, is suspicious of Australia’s close military relationship with the United States.
Australia warned in the paper of risks it faces, particularly in the “Indo-Pacific region” due to a shift in the balance of power.
It highlighted the South China Sea as a “major fault line in the regional order”, and said it was “particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale” of China’s land reclamation and construction activities in the disputed waters.
Responding to the white paper on Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry official Lu Kang said that “Australia is not a claimant state of the South China Sea issue and has repeatedly stated that the country does not have any stance on issues of sovereignty disputes.”
Lu urged Australia to keep its promise and stop making “irresponsible remarks” on the issue, reported the Chinese English-language daily Global Times.
An opinion piece also published on Thursday in the Global Times – the international mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party –criticised the white paper, stating that it “reveals Australia’s anxiety”.
“Australia is geographically distant from China, but it has been trying to get involved in the disputes that China has with its neighboyring countries. It has called on the US to play a balancing role and incited China’s neighbours to adopt a tough attitude toward China,” said the article.
While the Australian government recognised the economic benefits from China’s rise, it was also trying to “wish China away”, said Jane Golley, deputy director at the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.
“To actually drop the word ‘Asia’ from ‘Asia-Pacific’ undoes three decades of diplomatic effort,” Golley said, referring to the use of the phrase “Indo-Pacific” which came up 120 times in the paper. “Asia-Pacific” was not used once.
The United States and some of its allies have recently been talking up their vision of the “Indo-Pacific”, instead of the “Asia-Pacific”, in a play on words aimed at undermining the influence of China.
“There is a small reference to China’s geo-economic strategy in the paper but the emphasis is on the tensions that could create, rather than the economic benefits,” Golley said.
Relations between Australia and China sank to a low point this year after Australia rejected high-profile Chinese investments, citing “national interest”.
Australia has also shown little enthusiasm for China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, which aims to connect China to Europe and beyond with infrastructure projects. The initiative was mentioned just once in the paper.
“We are not embracing the future,” Golley said. “We are holding on to the past and reaching on to the life jacket rather than thinking of building a whole new ship.”