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South China Sea equipment 'primarily' for civilian use

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Chinese premier says defence installations not militarising disputed region

SYDNEY: China is not militarising the disputed South China Sea, the country's premier said on Friday in Australia, claiming that the defence equipment Beijing has installed on artificial islands is "primarily" for civilian use.

"Even if there is a certain amount of defence equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation," Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told a press conference with Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra.

"Because without such freedom or without stability in the South China Sea, the Chinese side would be among the first to bear the brunt of it."

China "never has any intention to engage in militarisation in the South China Sea", he said, adding that installations, which include airstrips and missile batteries, are "primarily for civilian purposes".

Mr Li said the aircraft and ships that transit through the South China Sea were from trading partners with Beijing, "so one can easily imagine how many Chinese interests are at stake here".

Sydney-based independent strategic consultant Tim Johnston said the nations involved in the dispute, including China and other claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines, were "being slightly disingenuous".

"You build up features in the South China Sea in disputed waters, you are likely to have to defend them, which implies some degree of militarisation," he told AFP.

"We have the photographs of what look like military installations on a number of the islands that China occupies."


Mr Li's comments that Beijing did not want to restrict navigation in the South China Sea was also to be expected as no country was seeking such an outcome, Mr Johnston said.

Instead, it was China's need for a veto over activities in the waters that were contentious "in a region where nationalism is very raw and borders are undefined".

But he added that the premier's remarks could be interpreted as an attempt "not to exacerbate the situation", at least for the current period.

Australia has followed its key ally, the United States, in carrying out several so-called "Freedom of Navigation" overflights and sail-bys in the region, which China previously described as "provocations".

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also said the building of artificial islands and possible militarisation by China create regional mistrust.

Mr Turnbull reiterated his call for all parties to resolve their differences peacefully under international law.

"We encourage all parties to refrain from taking any actions that would add to tensions, including actions of militarisation of disputed features," he said.

Beijing last year vehemently dismissed a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that there was no legal basis to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.- AFP

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