Bangkok: South-east Asian nations are turning to Australia to seek closer defence ties amid rising concerns over China's military build-up in the flashpoint waters of the South China Sea.
The move comes as the United States warned that a ruling of an international court in a case brought by the Philippines over its South China Sea claims in the coming weeks could trigger Beijing to declare an exclusion zone in the waters through which 30 per cent of world trade passes.
Malaysia's Defence Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, is scheduled to meet Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne next week to discuss China's placement of military equipment on disputed islands, in a sign that Malaysia is considering a tougher stand against Beijing, its largest trading partner.
"If the reports we've received from various sources regarding the build-up and placement of military assets in the Spratlys are true – this forces us in a pushback against China," Mr Hishammuddin said, adding he would also hold talks with the Philippines and Vietnam.
The Spratlys are a chain of atolls in the South China Sea where China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims.
Malaysia has in the past shied away from taking a confrontational stand against China over the disputed waters, balancing its foreign policy against its relationship with Beijing.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is also planning to visit Australia in May for discussions that will seek to forge a series of new agreements between the two countries, including a deal to enhance defence cooperation.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her Singapore counterpart, Vivian Balakrishnan, declared after a meeting in Sydney on Friday that both countries are committed to the rights of states to conduct freedom of navigation and airspace of the South China Sea.
"That's what Australia has done in the past and what we'll continue to do," Ms Bishop told reporters.
Dr Balakrishnan said though Singapore was a tiny city state, its trade was three times its GDP, and hence security of passage through the South China Sea was "essential".
"So we totally subscribe to the concept of freedom of navigation and over-flight and we would highlight the South China Sea as important for both Australia and Singapore, because so much of our trade flows through that," he said.
Under a 1971-signed pact called the Five Power Defence Arrangements Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, the UK and New Zealand are already committed to "consult" each other in the event or threat of an armed attack on Malaysia or Singapore.
The five nations hold defence exercises each year.
China's aggressive pursuit of its claim over almost all of the South China Sea has already pushed other countries including the Philippines and Vietnam to look to closer defence ties with Australia and the United States.
The head of US naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, told Reuters he was struck by how China's increasing militarisation of the South China Sea had increased the willingness of other countries in the region to work together, pointing to joint naval exercises between the US, Japan and India and unprecedented defence cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea.
Admiral Richardson said the US would welcome the participation of other countries in joint patrols of the South China Sea.
He said the US saw good opportunities to build relationships with countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and India, which he said have all realised the importance of safeguarding freedom of the seas.
Asked whether China could respond to the upcoming ruling by the court of arbitration in the Hague by declaring or air defence identification zone, as it did farther north in the East China Sea in 2013, Admiral Richardson said: "It's definitely a concern. We will just have to see what happens ... we think about contingencies and responses."
Admiral Richardson said the US plans to continue carrying out freedom-of-navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of disputed geographical features to underscore its concerns about keeping sea lanes open.
- With agencies
Lindsay Murdoch is a three-time winner of the Walkley Award, Australia's top award for journalistic excellence. Lindsay is a former correspondent based in Singapore, Jakarta and Darwin. In 1999 he covered the tumultuous events in East Timor, and in 2003 he covered the Iraq war while embedded with US Marines.
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