Australia’s New Leader Raps China on Island Building

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Australia’s new leader criticized China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea as ” pushing the envelope” of acceptable behavior as his government sought to reassure Washington over his country’s tight alliance with the U.S.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in his first foreign policy pronouncements since ousting his predecessor Tony Abbott last week, said China’s construction of artificial islands around reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands was counterproductive because it was raising concerns in Asia over Beijing’s territorial intentions rather than enhancing its sense of security.

“The pushing the envelope in the South China Sea has had the consequence of exactly the reverse consequence of what China would seek to achieve,” Mr. Turnbull told Australian television late Monday. He said the actions have prompted smaller countries in the region to turn to the U.S. for security even more than before.

Beijing didn’t respond publicly to Mr. Turnbull’s comments. Chinese officials have rejected criticism of the reclamation work on the grounds that China has sovereign rights in the area.

Mr. Turnbull spoke as the White House is expected to press Chinese President Xi Jinping over the islands during his visit to Washington this week, and as Australia sets long-term plans to boost its military.

Foreign policy experts believe Mr. Turnbull, 60, a wealthy former businessman with close personal and business ties to China, could steer a more Asia-centric government than the British-born Mr. Abbott. Such a stance could improve ties with Beijing and put more distance between Australia and Washington on security and foreign policy, these people say. Mr. Turnbull has previously spoken against efforts to contain China’s rise.

Mr. Turnbull’s statements appear aimed at countering this impression and were punctuated by new Defense Minister Marise Payne, who was appointed by Mr. Turnbull over the weekend during a cabinet shuffle.

On Tuesday she sought to allay any concerns about Australia’s support for Washington’s rebalance of forces to the Asia region, which includes plans to rotate more U.S. Marines, aircraft and warships through Australia. She also said Australia would continue airstrikes in support of U.S.-led efforts to counter Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

Her first priority, she said, would be meetings with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington. She and Mr. Turnbull also held talks on Monday with John Berry, Washington’s ambassador to Australia.

“That I hope reinforces for anyone who may have had an alternative view, that that is a key meeting for this government and for Prime Minister Turnbull, a key indication of where we intend to take [relations],” Ms. Payne said.

Ms. Payne, 51 years old, takes over as Australia’s first female defense minister ahead of the release of a major long- term strategy blueprint in November that will outline a 20-year, A$270 billion ($194 billion) plan to boost the military. That includes A$89 billion for new frigates and offshore combat vessels and a A$20 billion fleet of eight submarines.

Mr. Turnbull is likely to lean toward part-construction of the fleet in Australia, senior government officials said in recent statements. The leadership switch has boosted the chances of German and French companies bidding for the project over a Japanese rival favored by Mr. Abbott, senior defense officials said.

The defense officials said the French submarine—built by DCNS and the largest competing design—is favored by cabinet members after aggressive German lobbying and Japanese reluctance to compete with French offers of building at least 70% of the fleet in Australia, helping protect vulnerable shipbuilding jobs.

Ms. Payne said she would also prioritize a visit to neighboring Indonesia, but had no early plans to visit China to soothe any worries there about a new Australian government study to be released over regional security risks. A previous one, in 2009, raised hackles in Beijing by highlighting the regional instability posed by China’s rise.

Mr. Turnbull said Chinese South China Sea policy belied its ambitions to assert more leadership in the Asia region.

“You would think what China would seek to achieve is to create a sufficient feeling of trust and confidence among its neighbors that they no longer felt the need to have the U.S. fleet and a strong U.S. presence in the western Pacific,” he said.

 

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