US to monitor South China Sea, talks with Australia on defence

SYDNEY - The United States will monitor actions in the South China Sea to see whether de-escalatory steps are being taken, a senior State Department official said on Monday, a day after Beijing repelled US pressure to rein in its actions in the disputed waters.


The official spoke as US. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Sydney for a meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Australian officials to discuss increased defence and cyber security cooperation.


A US. proposal for a freeze on provocative acts in the South China Sea got a cool response from China and some Southeast Asian nations at a regional meeting at the weekend, an apparent setback to Washington's efforts to thwart China's assertive actions.


The state department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that close ally Australia had supported a US. proposal put forward at the ASEAN meeting in Myanmar which called for a voluntary freeze on provocative actions in the disputed sea.


Tensions spiked in May when China parked a giant oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. The US. and Philippine proposals aimed to prevent such actions, as well as building and land reclamation work on disputed islands being carried out by China and other claimants.


The rancour over the disputed sea has split ASEAN, with several states including some of the claimant nations reluctant to jeopardise rising trade and investment ties with China. Beijing has been able to use its influence to block regional action on the maritime issue, most notably in 2012 when an ASEAN meeting chaired by Chinese ally Cambodia broke down in acrimony.


Kerry and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop attended the Naypyitaw meeting before travelling to Australia together. The pair planned to explore follow up actions to the Myanmar talks including an upcoming meeting between ASEAN members and China, the official said.


Bishop is hosting the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) in Sydney, where defence and security cooperation is expected to be high on the agenda along with developments in Iraq and Ukraine. Talks will include discussions on cooperation in ballistic missile defence, cyber security and maritime security, the official added.


"It's an opportunity for them to align their defence policies as allies and to explore ways to expand security cooperation as well as strategic planning," the official said. The ministers will sign an agreement reached between US. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on the deployment of US. marines to Australia for joint exercises and training in areas such as disaster relief.


Some 1,150 Marines are currently stationed in Darwin in Australia's tropical north under a 2011 agreement that launched President Barack Obama's strategic "pivot" to the fast-growing Asia region. The Marine contingent, primed to respond to regional conflicts and humanitarian missions, is expected to swell to 2,500 by 2017.


Obama's pivot has irked China, which sees it as an attempt to block its growing diplomatic, military and political influence across the region, and has faced criticism from some allies doubtful about Washington's commitment to the strategy. Space cooperation, climate change and trade will also be on the AUSMIN agenda, the official said.

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