SYDNEY - Australia and New Zealand strongly urged China on Friday (Feb 19) to refrain from stoking tensions in the South China Sea, after its apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island.
Tensions between China and its neighbours over sovereignty in the South China Sea were raised after Taiwan and US officials said China deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to Woody Island, in the Paracel Island chain.
"We urge all claimants in the South China Sea to refrain from any building of islands, any militarization of islands, any land reclamation," Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said after a meeting in Sydney with his New Zealand counterpart John Key.
"It is absolutely critical that we ensure that there is a lowering of tensions." Turnbull said if Chinese President Xi Jinping was serious about avoiding the so-called Thucydides Trap, where a rising power causes fear in an established power that escalates toward war, he must resolve disputes through international law.
"President Xi is right in identifying avoiding that trap as a key goal," said Turnbull, who is expected to visit Beijing in April.
New Zealand, the first developed country to recognise China as a market economy and to sign a bilateral free trade deal, was leveraging its relationship with China to urge measures to lower tensions, Key said.
"As we get a deeper and closer economic relationship with China, does that give us more opportunities to make that case, both privately and publicly? ... my view is yes," said Key, noting that both Australia and New Zealand are now also part of the Beijing-led Asian Investment Bank.
The comments come after Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Beijing, where she brought up the missiles and the South China Sea in meetings with Chinese officials, including top diplomat State Councillor Yang Jiechi.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Australia and New Zealand "are not countries involved in the South China Sea".
"We hope the two countries can objectively view the historical developments of the South China Sea, not neglect the facts, and not put forward proposals that are unconstructive,"Hong told reporters at a regular briefing.
The Chinese government has offered few specific details in response to the missiles claim, while accusing Western media of"hyping up" the story and saying China has a legitimate right to military facilities on territory it views as its own.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
The Philippines said it was "gravely concerned" about the reports of missiles being deployed on Woody Island.
"These developments further erode trust and confidence and aggravate the already tense situation in the region," said a statement from the foreign ministry in Manila.
Beijing has been angered by air and sea patrols the United States has conducted near islands China claims in the region.
Those have included one by two B-52 strategic bombers in November and by a US Navy destroyer that sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels last month.
An influential Chinese state-run tabloid, the Global Times, in an editorial on Friday, described the HQ-9 missiles that are apparently now on Woody Island as "a typical type of defensive weapon", but warned the People's Liberation Army may feel compelled to deploy more weapons.
"If the U.S. military stages a real threat and a military clash is looming, the PLA may feel propelled to deploy more powerful weapons," it said.