A Chinese coast guard vessel followed by a Vietnamese coast guard ship near the area of China's oil drilling oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

A Chinese coast guard vessel followed by a Vietnamese coast guard ship near the area of China's oil drilling oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Chinese expansion calls for firm challenge

9 June 2015

“In no previous period of modern history have frontiers been so rigidly demarcated, or their character as barriers so ruthlessly enforced, as today.” So wrote EH Carr in his seminal work about the rise of Germany and decline of Britain, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939.

This is not to argue, as do some commentators with febrile minds these days, that we are in danger of lurching into World War III. However, the challenges to established borders in Europe by Russia and to disputed territories in the East and South China seas — as well as in the Himalayas — by China do not bode well for international peace and security.

In this past week, we have seen China issue a defence white paper that accuses some of its offshore neighbours of taking provocative actions and reinforcing their military presence on “China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied”.

Some external countries “are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China”.

In an important announcement, the white paper proclaims that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned” and it is necessary for China to build itself into a maritime power.

A few days after the release of the white paper, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend, the deputy chief of the general staff, Admiral Sun Jianguo, asserted China’s indisputable sovereignty in the South China Sea and that China was being ­restrained in the face of provocations.

But who believes that China is merely developing “international public goods” on the reefs and ­islets it claims in the South China Sea to meet its responsibilities for search and rescue and maritime safety?

Australian Department of Defence secretary Dennis Richardson, in a speech on May 27, commented on the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea during the past couple of years.

He observed that the speed and scale of this reclamation activity on disputed reefs and other features raised the question of intent and purpose. We must prudently assume that China fully intends to build up its military presence in the South China Sea, and sooner rather than later.

The word on this issue in Washington seems to be getting tougher and there is a desire to impose costs on China’s behaviour. US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter said recently that the US would continue to assert its rights under international law with regard to maritime passage and air activities.

We can, therefore, expect to see US military activities in the South China Sea that challenge China’s unilateral claims to the sea or air space around disputed reefs and artificial islands.

Where should Australia stand on all this? Successive Australian governments have not taken a position on the competing claims in the South China Sea and we call for all parties to resolve their differences peacefully and in accordance with international law.

But as a maritime nation heavily dependent on freedom of navigation of the seas, it is well within our international legal rights to deploy our warships and military aircraft on and above the South China Sea.

The Australian reported this week that a Singapore-based academic, Richard Bitzinger, stated that Australia would be taking a major risk carrying out maritime surveillance missions in the South China Sea, including by P-3 maritime aircraft. He claimed such an action probably would be seen by China as provocative and that it would be a “pretty significant expansion in Australia’s security interests in an area rather far from its shores and traditional areas of concern”.

In fact, for at least 40 years Australia has carried out naval and air reconnaissance missions in the South China Sea.

For example, in the 1970s P-3 Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft operated over the South China Sea in operations monitoring Soviet naval activities.

It is also now well known that Australia’s Oberon submarines in that period operated against the Soviet navy based in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and other Soviet naval activities.

So, while encouraging China to peacefully settle South China Sea disputes, the fact is it looks as though China is headed towards confrontation with anybody that disagrees with its so-called indisputable territorial claims.

In my view, it is time to be firm with China, and that may well involve the deployment of our naval forces and maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.

This article originally appeared in The Australian.  Republished with permission.

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