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Labor folly on South China Sea: Bishop

AAP logoAAP 11/10/2016

Julie Bishop has joined other senior coalition figures in endorsing former prime minister Paul Keating's criticism of a Labor plan that would allow the navy to decide whether to conduct freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea.

The foreign minister told parliament on Tuesday clarity and consistency were all-important when dealing with significant and difficult regional issues involving great powers.

Opposition defence spokesman Richard Marles had decided Australia should escalate tensions by having the navy conduct freedom-of-navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed islands, she said.

The government's position had been "utterly consistent" in calling for all nations to refrain from coercive behaviour.

"It took the former Labor prime minister Paul Keating to denounce Labor's latest pronouncements as shocking," Ms Bishop told MPs.

Mr Keating said any decision to sail a vessel through a disputed area where there was risk of conflict should only ever be taken by an elected government in full awareness of the circumstances at the time.

"You don't outsource decisions like this to a naval commander, or even to an admiral," he said.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull agreed, saying such decisions should be taken by politicians.

"Outsourcing that to naval officers, no matter how distinguished, misses the point," he said.

While being in opposition gave Labor certain liberties, it was not very promising for a party to be canvassing such matters in a highly political way, he said.

"It shows a real immaturity and unreadiness to take responsibility for these issues," Mr Turnbull said.

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