US 'threatens to involve Australia in war with China': Paul Keating condemns US secretary of state nominee's comments
Former prime minister Paul Keating has rounded on President-elect Donald Trump's secretary of state nominee, accusing him of threatening to bring on war with China and making "ludicrous" comments on the tense South China Sea dispute.
In a statement released on Friday, Mr Keating warned the Australian government to reject Rex Tillerson's declaration this week that a "signal" needed to be sent to Beijing that the construction of artificial islands in the contested region must stop and "access to those islands also is not going to be allowed".
The remarks from the former chief of Exxon Mobil, in which he also called for regional allies "to show backup", have set the stage for sharply increased tensions between the US and China as the Asian superpower builds up its military presence on the islands to defend against competing territorial claims from neighbouring countries.
According to Mr Keating, Mr Tillerson's testimony to his US Senate confirmation hearing "threatens to involve Australia in war with China". And he has urged the Australian people to "take note" and recommended the government tell the Trump administration, which will take over on January 20, "that Australia will not be part of such adventurism, just as we should have done in Iraq 15 years ago".
"That means no naval commitment to joint operations in the South China Sea and no enhanced US military facilitation of such operations," the former Labor prime minister said.
"Tillerson's claim that China's control of access to the waters would be a threat to 'the entire global economy' is simply ludicrous. No country would be more badly affected than China if it moved to impede navigation. On the other hand, Australia's prosperity and the security of the world would be devastated by war."
The Chinese government has so far offered a muted response to Mr Tillerson, with foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang saying that China "has the full right" to conduct activities in the waters but added "the South China Sea situation has cooled down and we hope non-regional countries can respect the consensus that it is in the fundamental interest of the world."
Mr Lu said China-US relations are based on "non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual benefit and win-win co-operation" and declined answer questions on what would happen if the Trump administration moved to cut China off from the islands, calling it a "hypothetical question".
Shortly after November's election of Donald Trump, Mr Keating urged Australia to "cut the tag" with the US, calling for a new independent foreign policy geared more closely to Asia.
In the Washington DC hearing, Mr Tillerson said China's activities in the South China Sea were "akin to Russia's taking Crimea" from Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declined to "speculate" on Mr Tillerson's remarks because they remain hypothetical while President Barack Obama and his administration remain in office.
"The government's position on the South China Sea remains clear and consistent," she said.
"We call on all claimants to refrain from unilateral actions to change the status quo which includes the construction of artificial islands. We also urge all countries to ensure their claims are consistent with international law including the arbitration ruling between the Philippines and China."