Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono and United States secretary of state Rex Tillerson say they are against increasing tensions in the South China Sea.
The trio met to discuss the matter in Manila, on the sidelines of Asia’s largest security forum.
China’s activity in the volatile region was a key issue among leaders at the meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
In a joint statement, Australia, Japan and the United States urged all claimants to territories in the sea to resolve their disputes peacefully.
“The ministers voiced their strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions. In this regard, the ministers urged South China Sea claimants to refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarisation of disputed features and undertaking unilateral actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment. The ministers called on all claimants to make and clarify their maritime claims in accordance with the international law of the sea.”
The statement came in stark contrast to what was considered a weak response by the 10-member ASEAN.
ASEAN leaders and China adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct, a move they hailed as progress.
But critics described it as a tactic by China to gain time to consolidate its maritime power.
Several ASEAN nations want the code to be legally binding and enforceable and to have a dispute-resolution mechanism.
Australia, Japan and the United States agree, opposing what they call “coercive unilateral actions.”
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi argues some countries remain, as he puts it, “in the past with their knowledge of the issue.”
“Is it that some countries do not want to see greater stability in the South China Sea? Is it that greater stability in the South China Sea does not serve their own interests? I think everyone can think about this issue.”
China has refused to abide by a tribunal that, last year, rejected its claims to almost all of the strategically important and resource-rich waterways.
Mr Kono says ASEAN ministers all agreed on the need to protect freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.
“With regard to the South China Sea issue, I expressed my grave concern over the situation and opposed any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force. The rule of law is at stake. In this regard, I emphasised the importance of the 2016 arbitral award, as well as non-militarisation of disputed features. I am pleased to find a number of my counterparts who share similar views.”
China has refused to recognise either the tribunal sitting at The Hague or the ruling.
Mr Wang insists the United States and its allies should stay out of what China maintains are purely bilateral disputes with its neighbours.
“On the part regarding the South China Sea, all the 10 ASEAN countries fully recognise the progress made in the cooperation with China in the past year and the positive trend toward creating stability in the South China Sea.
Minister Kono has expressed his willingness to strengthen the relationship with China. That’s the sincere intention. We hope that can be turned into real policy actions.”
But ahead of arriving in Manila for the ASEAN meetings, Ms Bishop issued this warning from Bangkok:
“Rising tensions in the South China Sea are a challenge to regional stability. The pursuit of national interests is testing the norms and rules which have served our region for so long and which are the basis of our security and prosperity. North Korea continues to defy the United Nations Security Council with its illegal missile and nuclear-weapons programs. There is a compelling need to defend the rules-based order in the region.”
The code framework is an outline for what China and ASEAN call “consultations” on a formal agreement, which could start later this year.