Australia Plans to Continue Surveillance Flights of South China Sea

Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne speaks during a joint press availability at the 2015 Australia-U.S. Ministerial (AUSMIN) consultations in Boston, Massachusetts October 13, 2015 REUTERS/Faith Ninivaggi

Australia will not bow to Chinese pressure to halt surveillance flights over disputed islands in the South China Sea at the center of territorial spats between China and its regional neighbors, Defense Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday.

The Australian Defense Department said on Tuesday one of its aircraft had flown "a routine maritime patrol" over the South China Sea from Nov. 25-Dec. 4, just as the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander warned that a possible arms race could engulf the region.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade ships every year, a fifth of it heading to and from U.S. ports.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also claim parts of the South China Sea.

Beijing is building seven man-made islands on reefs in the Spratly Islands, including a 3,000-metre-long (10,000-foot) airstrip on one of the sites, according to satellite imagery of the area.

Such activity has fanned regional tensions. In October, a U.S. guided missile destroyer sailed close to one of China's man-made islands, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing. U.S. defense officials say another U.S. patrol this year is unlikely.

Payne said Canberra would not be deterred by warnings from Beijing, which again responded angrily to the Australian patrol, and described the flights as a routine part of Australia's role in helping to maintain regional stability and security.

"We always navigate in a very constructive way in the region," she told reporters in Adelaide.

The Chinese state-owned Global Times newspaper cautioned Australia against entering air space near the disputed area, warning of a possible military retaliation if they did so again.

"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 close to China's islands," the newspaper said.

"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."