Australia will “strongly oppose” Chinese attempts to treat the waters of the East and South China Seas as their own, vowing with Japan, the United States and India to uphold the sovereignty of regional partners.
In talks overnight on Thursday, Marise Payne and her “Quad” counterparts discussed regional maritime security challenges, including China’s use of its domestic coastguard fleet to harass foreign fishing ships in contested waters.
Senator Payne said the key Indo-Pacific democracies were committed to supporting ASEAN neighbours and “upholding international rules and obligations”.
“We reaffirmed our commitment to supporting an open, inclusive and resilient region where the rights of all countries are respected and disputes are resolved peacefully, free from coercion, and in accordance with international law,” she said.
Japan’s statement after the virtual meeting said its Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu expressed serious concern over China’s new Coastguard Law, which allows its vessels to use “all necessary means” to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels in waters claimed by China.
According to the statement, “the four ministers concurred to strongly oppose unilateral and forceful attempts to change the status quo in the context of the East and South China Sea”.
A spokesman for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the ministers agreed to “strengthen co-operation on advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region, including support for freedom of navigation and territorial integrity”.
The Quad foreign ministers vowed to stand by regional partners in the COVID recovery phase, amid a push by Beijing to use the crisis to reshape the regional order in its favour.
Myanmar was also a key topic for discussion, with the ministers reiterating “our serious concerns about the military coup in Myanmar and affirmed our commitment to its democratic transition”, Senator Payne said.
The Lowy Institute’s power and diplomacy program Hervé Lemahieu said there was a “shared concern” among Quad partners over China’s attempts to force other nations’ vessels out of the contested waters.
“We are more focused on the South China Sea, but there are a lot of tactics that China is deploying in the East China Sea which are being replicated in the South China Sea, and vice-a-versa,” Mr Lemahieu said.
“That includes the use of its coastguard, and trying to make the management of the seas a domestic law enforcement issue as opposed to one that involves sovereign states, which is a dangerous precedent.”
It was the first meeting of Quad foreign ministers since Joe Biden’s election as US President, and follows a joint naval exercise by the grouping’s members hosted by India in November.
The ministers agreed to regular Quad foreign ministers’ meetings, and laid the groundwork for a first-of-its-kind Quad leaders’ meeting in coming months.
The planned Quad leaders’ meeting, which would bring together Scott Morrison, President Biden, Japan’s Yoshihide Suga and India’s Narendra Modi, could occur in the first half of the year, would help cement the new US President’s Indo-Pacific policy agenda.
The Australian government is working hard to elevate the Quad as a security grouping, and is also a strong supporter of Britain’s proposed Democratic Ten or D10 grouping of democratic nations to replace the G7.
In another collective stand against China this week, Australia joined 57 other countries to support a Canadian-led international declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign citizens. The move came almost 800 days after Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained in China.