China displeased with South China Sea talk in Australia's foreign policy White Paper

China displeased with South China Sea talk in Australia's foreign policy White Paper

China displeased with South China Sea talk in Australia's foreign policy White Paper

Updated 24 November 2017, 16:10 AEDT

The Chinese Government describes language on the disputed South China Sea in the Australian Government's foreign policy White Paper as "irresponsible", while its state media has labelled Australia a "distant propaganda outpost" agitating against China.

The Chinese Government has described language on the disputed South China Sea in the Australian Government's foreign policy White Paper as "irresponsible," while its state media has gone further, labelling Australia a "distant propaganda outpost" agitating against China.

Key points:

  • Australia urged to stop raising concerns about the territorial dispute
  • Communist Party-owned tabloid calls White Paper remarks an 'immature outburst'
  • References to 'Indo-Pacific' rather than 'Asia-Pacific' being viewed dimly by Chinese observers

The first White Paper in 13 years urged China to uphold a rules-based order — a reference to Beijing ignoring a 2016 international court ruling on its military base and island construction activities in the disputed South China Sea.

While noting some positive language about the development of Australia's relationship with China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's spokesman Lu Kang urged Australia to stop raising concerns about the territorial dispute.

"Australia is not a party to the South China Sea issue," he said at a regular briefing in Beijing.

"Australia has claimed many times it does not take sides on the sovereignty issue of the South China Sea, so we urge Australia to keep its promise."

The White Paper also committed Australia to deeper engagement with other democracies in the region — a move widely viewed as a hedging strategy against the rising authoritarian power.

"The rules accepted by the international community are not made by any particular country", Mr Lu said.

"China follows rules based on the present aim and situation of the United Nations, and not based on any political aims of any particular country".

Officials in Beijing have long shown their displeasure at Australian concerns over the South China Sea being publicly raised.

Beijing has been seeking to control the strategic waterway with an aggressive island building and military base program over the past five years.

Four other neighbouring countries make overlapping claims while Taiwan shares China's claim to the vast majority of the area.

In response to the White Paper, the Communist Party-owned tabloid, Global Times, went much further than the official language, using an editorial to argue Australia's cautious stance on China is ungrateful.

The nationalistic outlet said in recent years, Australia had become something of a distant propaganda outpost agitating for neighbours to be wary about China.

Seemingly exasperated at why Beijing's economic influence in Australia has not eased people's concerns, it said China "could relegate ties with Australia to the back of the line, and ignore its immature outburst".

Other countries, such as Vietnam, have upgraded existing facilities, but the scale and pace of China's construction is unprecedented.

Locals don't perceive China as a rule breaker

"The language about a rules-based order has widely been interpreted as being against China", said Chen Hong, a professor at China East Normal University in Shanghai.

"Many people here believe China does not break rules, so it's not in China or Australia's interests to perceive China as a rule breaker," he said.

The White Paper's references to the "Indo-Pacific" rather than the "Asia-Pacific" are also being viewed dimly by Chinese observers.

"This phrase or construct has been created to ostracise, to exclude China," Professor Chen said.

"China welcomes Australia to be an active part of the Asia-Pacific club.

"I don't think this is a good way to help the bilateral relationship."

Overall though many Chinese analysts have noted the White Paper's focus on changing power dynamics, and Professor Chen said Beijing understands Australia's need to prepare for an unpredictable future.

"The White Paper indicates Australia's thinking to find its own way in the region without the leadership of the United States, so against this background, this White Paper is full of uncertainty," Professor Chen said.

Chinese officials 'respect the stand we have taken'

Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has brushed off China's criticisms.

"The Ministry for Foreign Affairs described our analysis of the China-Australia relationship as objective, and the feedback I have had from senior Chinese officials is that they respect the stand we have taken in the White Paper," Ms Bishop said.

"Last night I met with the Chinese Ambassador [to Australia] and he was very positive about the Australia-China relationship."

Ms Bishop said the White Paper was a clear statement of Australia's values.

"The White Paper is principled, it's pragmatic and it sets out very clearly our interests, our values and our priorities, and I think other nations will respect that."