Australia’s foreign minister, who arrived in Beijing late on Tuesday night, had made clear during a preceding trip to Tokyo that she intended to push her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi for clarification on how China intended to use its man-made islands in the disputed waters, the product of an audaciously rapid land reclamation programme that has riled its neighbours.
The Philippines, a rival claimant, has challenged Beijing at an arbitration court in The Hague over China’s territorial claims. Beijing has repeatedly said it will not recognise the case and defended its right to build on what it considers to be its sovereign territory.
China claims much of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.
In Tokyo on Tuesday, Ms Bishop said Australia took no sides on the competing territorial claims but awaited the outcome of the arbitration.
“We recognise the Philippines’ right to seek to resolve the matter through arbitration, but we urge all claimants to settle their disputes peacefully without coercion, without intimidation,” she said.
With Ms Bishop and Mr Wang set to sit down for an annual foreign and strategic dialogue on Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry pre-emptively pushed back against her comments at a regular press briefing on Tuesday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China would “never” accept the Philippines’ “unilateral” initiation of international arbitration which it contends as a contravention of international law.
“Australia should not selectively evade that objective fact,” Mr Hong said. “Australia should adopt an objective and unbiased attitude and refrain from doing anything that undermines regional peace and stability.”
In Tokyo, Ms Bishop spoke at length with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on how to rein in China’s assertive stance on the South China Sea, while also agreeing China should do use its influence to curb North Korea’s “provocative” behaviour following recent ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
Australia’s deepening of security and strategic ties with Japan adds to an air of tension ahead of Ms Bishop’s talks with Mr Wang which harks back to their now infamous encounter in 2013.
Angered by Australia’s protests over what was then a newly-declared “air defence identification zone” over the disputed East China Sea, Mr Wang sidestepped diplomatic pleasantries in delivering a public dressing down of Ms Bishop in front of international and Chinese media. The spat was later described by a senior DFAT official as the “rudest” conduct he had seen in 30 years of public service.
But the diplomatic posturing was outweighed by economic gain, with the two countries setting aside their differences to agree a landmark bilateral free trade agreement the following year.
As well as meeting with Mr Wang, Ms Bishop will meet with China’s top climate change negotiator Xie Zhenhua and senior education officials on Wednesday, before paying a call on Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday.