China has accused Australia of maintaining a “Cold War mentality” with its alliance with the United States, following the release of the Turnbull government’s defence white paper which criticised China’s role in rising tensions in the South China Sea.
At a regular press briefing in Beijing, Defence Ministry spokesman Colonel Wu Qian said China was “seriously concerned” about the contents in the white paper, and that it was “firmly opposed to the accusations against China’s construction activities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea”.
“We urge the Australian side to cherish the hard-won good momentum of development in bilateral relations, and don’t take part in or conduct any activities that may compromise the stability in the region,” Colonel Wu said at Thursday’s briefing, alluding to pressure on Australia to join the United States in sailing warships within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands in the sea in so-called freedom of navigation operations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China was “dissatisfied” with the white paper’s “negative” comments on the South China Sea. But she also welcomed remarks in the paper that said Australia was seeking to enhance defence co-operation with China.
“China welcomes that and hopes it can translate these positive statements into concrete actions,” she said.
While predictable in their forceful delivery, the official responses from Beijing, including the Cold War line has been largely boilerplate, and state-run media coverage has so far been low-key.
This reflects that Australia’s defence white paper was long-telegraphed, used measured and restrained language in couching its concerns on China and perhaps most crucially, that Canberra has remained publicly noncommittal on whether it would carry out a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea.
This is despite pressure from the United States, federal opposition and even within its own ranks with former prime minister Tony Abbott in a speech in Tokyo on Friday outlining the merits of carrying out such an exercise.
“We support and practise freedom of navigation in accordance with international law, but we are not going to canvass, forecast, future ADF operations,” Mr Turnbull told reporters on Thursday.