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Julie Bishop is in China to confront Beijing about its 'plans to militarise' islands in the South China Sea

Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe

Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop is on her way to China, and on the top of her agenda is confronting Beijing over its intentions for its massive island-building program in the South China Sea.

Her interests follows concerns that the country is continuing to militarise islands which lie in contested waters.

Beijing has consistently denied it plans to militarise the islands. Last year, president Xi Jinping told Bishop that the developments were for “humanitarian” operations such as search and rescue.

Since then, the country has built military-grade runways and lighthouses on some of the artificial islands, and are currently working on port facilities that could berth naval ships.

Since the construction, the US has been urging regional powers to join it in regular patrols, however many are concerned with straining ties with the Asian giant.

In December it was reported that Australia had ramped up its military surveillance over a disputed area of the South China Sea, increasing the number of flights in the past 12 to 18 months.

A routine maritime patrol in the region as part of Operation Gateway attracted a stern threat from China, published in state-owned Chinese publication The Global Times.

It said that if the Australian military continued its “freedom of navigation operation” over disputed maritime territories in the region, there may be consequences.

“The Chinese people cannot understand why the Australian military would get involved, and to be honest, they have less patience to prevent a flare up,” the translated editorial read, according to the ABC.

“Australian military planes better not regularly come to the South China Sea to ‘get involved’, and especially don’t test China’s patience by flying to close to China’s islands.

“Everyone has always been careful, but it would be a shame if one day a plane fell from the sky and it happened to be Australian.”

During her visit, Bishop also intends on asking Beijing to do more to rein in North Korea, which launched a long-range rocket this month, defying international warnings, as well as discuss Australia’s submarine program with both Chinese and Japanese officials.

Now read: Why the South China Sea is so crucial.

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