MANILA – The top ministers of Japan, the United States and Australia on Monday lambasted China’s military buildup in the South China Sea and confirmed the importance of security cooperation in dealing with a territorial dispute in the waters.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also “welcomed” the fresh sanctions on North Korea that the U.N. Security Council adopted Saturday in response to Pyongyang’s two long-range missile tests in July, according to a joint statement released following their talks.
On the South China Sea dispute, “the ministers voiced their strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions,” the statement said, adding they urged claimants in the sea to refrain from “militarization of disputed features.”
The three gathered on the sidelines of a series of meetings hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important shipping routes, China and several ASEAN countries have overlapping territorial claims. Beijing has rapidly built artificial islands and added military infrastructure in the waters in recent years.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Kono, Tillerson and Bishop “called on all claimants to make and clarify their maritime claims” and “to resolve disputes peacefully” in accordance with the international law of the sea, the statement said.
They asked China to “abide by” the July 2016 ruling issued by an international court of arbitration in the Hague that rejected Beijing’s sweeping claims in the waters. But China has since ignored the court decision.
As for the East China Sea, where Japan is involved in a territorial row with China, the ministers said in the statement that they “will remain in close communication about developments in the area,” criticizing Beijing’s “coercive or unilateral” actions there.
Chinese government vessels have repeatedly intruded into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands, a group of islets in the East China Sea administered by Japan but also claimed by Beijing and Taiwan.
In the first meeting involving the top diplomats of the three countries since July 2016 in Laos, the ministers also discussed how to grapple with the threats from North Korea.
The gathering took place two days after the UNSC imposed fresh sanctions on Pyongyang that will slash the hermit nation’s $3 billion of annual export revenue by a third.
The sanctions resolution, which China and Russia voted for, was the seventh the Security Council has imposed on North Korea since 2006, when the country carried out its first nuclear test.
While working closely with the United States and Australia, Kono, who succeeded Fumio Kishida as foreign minister during last Thursday’s Cabinet reshuffle, has been eager to increase pressure on Pyongyang.
“The ministers called on the international community to implement strictly (the U.N.) resolutions and impose additional diplomatic and economic measures” to urge North Korea to “abandon its current threatening and provocative path and immediately take steps to denuclearize,” the statement said.
During the trilateral meeting Monday, Kono, a graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., spoke with Tillerson and Bishop in English, a Japanese government official said, a rare move for Japan’s foreign minister.
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