Top Chinese Army officer assures Australia free navigation in South China Sea 'never a problem'

ABC News
Chen Zhuo

PHOTO: Brigadier Cameron Purdey greets Senior Colonel Wang Jingguo during the opening ceremony. (Supplied: Department of Defence)

Source: ABC News

Speaking in Canberra, People's Liberation Army Senior Colonel Wang Jingguo said it is up to Australia to decide whether its military wanted to challenge China's territorial claims in the strategic waterway.

"Actually — freedom of navigation exercises is not a problem, it has never been a problem in the South China Sea," Colonel Wang said.

"All countries have their rights that their aircrafts and their ships have the full rights and freedom of navigating in the South China Sea."

The rare public comments from Beijing's defence attache come just months after the ABC revealed Australian warships had been challenged by the Chinese military while transiting through the contested region towards Vietnam.

US and British warships have recently challenged Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea by sailing within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands, but to date the Australian Defence Force has resisted pressure to conduct similar patrols.

Colonel Wang has played down suggestions that relations with China would be damaged if Australia also conducted a "freedom of navigation" operation through the area.

"Australia is an independent country. It is for the Australian Government and its people to make its own decision whether to conduct this kind of freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea or not," he said.

Military activities begin with traditional welcome

Colonel Wang's South China Sea assurances were made as he helped launch Exercise Pandaroo, a series of adventure training activities held each year between the Australian Army and the People's Liberation Army.

PHOTO: Personnel from the Australian Army and People's Liberation Army line up to receive a traditional smoke cleansing. (Supplied: Department of Defence)

Despite recent political tensions between Australia and China over claims of foreign interference, both nations have continued to maintain a much healthier military relationship.

"Military-to-military relationship is a very important part of state-to-state ties," Colonel Wang said.

Australian Army Major Terri King said Exercise Pandaroo was not aimed at de-escalating the recent strains between Canberra and Beijing.

"We're here to solidify the relationship between the young PLA and the young Australians, hoping to forge long-lasting relationships that will take us into the future where we might not need to actually worry about de-escalation too much," she said.

Earlier this month a Chinese warship was invited to Australia for the first time to take part in international war games known as Exercise Kakadu.

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