The US and China are facing off over artificial islands in the South China Sea

With tensions between the US and China rising as the US Navy sails within 12 nautical miles of the disputed territorial waters in the South China Sea, Australia has backed away from the dispute, denying any involvement in the US action.

America’s “freedom of navigation” operation will see the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen sail close to artificial islands China has built near the disputed Spratly Islands, between Vietnam and Philippines, to press the nation’s case to operate in the region.

The move has raised the hackles of Chinese government officials, with foreign minister Wang Yi saying “We advise the US to think again and before acting, not act blindly or make trouble out of nothing.”

When news of the US mission broke earlier in the weeks, some reports suggested US allies such as Australia could potentially follow its lead.

Defence minister Marise Payne said this afternoon that Australia is not be involved in the American plans.

“The United States has publicly declared its policy of conducting Freedom of Navigation operations globally, consistent with international law,” she said.

“It is important to recognise that all states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea. Australia strongly supports these rights.

“Australia is not involved in the current United States activity in the South China Sea.

“Australia has a legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Approximately sixty per cent of Australia’s exports pass through the South China Sea.

“Australia continues to cooperate closely with the United States and other regional partners on maritime security.”

The Obama administration said it would test China’s territorial claims to the area after mounting pressure from Congress and the US military.

The ongoing debate between the countries is over seven reefs China reclaimed over the last two years, built on the submerged Subi and Mischief reefs.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China cannot lay to claim the area around man-made islands.

Diplomatic tensions surrounding disputed territories escalated dramatically a couple of months ago following reports that China was militarising the islands despite claiming that it would stop reclaiming the land.

In addition to an airfield, China is believed to be planning to equip the artificial islands with anti-aircraft weapons and various naval vessels — a presence which would further solidify China’s position within the region.

Read more on that here.

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

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