Australia, UK call out China for Hong Kong, South China Sea and Russia support

Australia and Britain on Friday criticised China for its actions in Hong Kong, the South China Sea and its support of Russia, after a meeting in which London and Canberra deepened their security ties.

The two countries called out “recent unsafe and destabilising behaviour by China’s vessels against Philippine vessels and crew near Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea”, in a statement that contained unusually direct language on Beijing’s activities in the region.

In a joint statement earlier this month with Southeast Asian nations, Australia called for restraint in the South China Sea, without explicitly mentioning China.

Friday’s statement was issued after Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, and defence secretary Grant Shapps met their Australian counterparts, Penny Wong and Richard Marles, in Adelaide.

The four ministers said they were concerned about Hong Kong’s new security law and the erosion of freedom and rights in the territory, a former colony of Britain, as well as human rights abuses in China.

“They raised deep concerns about the continuing systemic erosion of autonomy, freedoms and rights there and the impact the newly passed Safeguarding National Security Ordinance will have on the city, and recognised the potential impact of these laws on individuals outside of Hong Kong,” the statement said.

The two countries were also strongly critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and said China should play a role in ending the conflict.

“Ministers called on all those with close relationships with Russia, particularly China, to refrain from helping Russia to continue its war in any way and to convince Russia to end its illegal war,” the statement said.

Australia is attempting to repair its relations with China after several years of tensions that included a freeze on ministerial meetings and Beijing’s placing curbs on Australian imports.

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi met with Wong during a visit to Australia this week.

The statement also warned of potentially devastating consequences of an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah in Gaza.

“Given the large number of displaced persons taking refuge in the area and lack of safe spaces in Gaza, ministers shared deep concern at the potentially devastating consequences for the civilian population of an expanded Israeli military operation in Rafah,” the statement said.

Israel says a ground invasion of Rafah is necessary to eliminate Hamas, despite countries including the United States warning of dire consequences for the more than a million Palestinians who have sheltered there since being displaced elsewhere in the Gaza Strip during the five-month-old war.

The ministerial meeting acme after Thursday’s signing of a new defence and security agreement. Australia outlined plans to spend billions on docks, shipyards and factories at home and in Britain for nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS security pact.