By James Brown
In the past 18 months Chinese vessels have built more than 2000 acres (809ha) of new land atop previously submerged reefs in the contested South China Sea. During the past weekend in Singapore, defence ministers and experts from across the Indo-Pacific met to discuss the implications for regional security.
In plenary sessions, official meetings, and private conversations at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogue the questions were the same. How to make clear to Chinese leaders that creating new islands and militarising them is unacceptable? How to calibrate a regional response that reinforces rules at sea and charts a steadier course towards resolving South China Sea territorial disputes?
The first question proved easier to address. In a measured keynote speech, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter laid down that the US would “oppose any further militarisation of disputed features” — a reference to revelations that the People’s Liberation Army had positioned self-propelled artillery units on a newly built island close to Vietnamese positions.
In a theme echoed by several other regional defence ministers, including Australia’s Kevin Andrews, Carter underlined the importance of freedom of navigation on the high seas for regional prosperity and sustainable security. Chinese actions to unilaterally create “new facts” in South China Sea disputes, he outlined, are a challenge to international rules and weaken the possibility of a fair outcome.
Chinese attempts to explain the land reclamation have thus far fallen flat. Speaking on Sunday, China’s deputy defence chief Admiral Sun Jianguo outlined that construction activity on South China Sea features was focused on developing “international public services” to help China meet its responsibilities for search and rescue, maritime co-ordination, and fisheries. Yesterday, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson outlined that reclamation was designed to improve conditions for local island inhabitants. One inconvenient fact: the only inhabitants are garrisoned soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army.
Both the Chinese and American speeches were more measured in tone than had been expected at this year’s dialogue, and both firmly tied their military power to Asia’s growing prosperity. But barbs in each speech foreshadowed what could happen if tensions aren’t properly managed. Carter casually noted the importance of freedom of navigation in the Malacca Strait to China’s growing energy needs. That mention, and his flight across the strait in a US Navy aircraft the day before, proved a subtle reminder of potential consequences for China should maritime tensions escalate. And on two occasions Chinese delegates mentioned their country’s “great restraint” on maritime territorial issues thus far, providing a reminder that China could go further in assertively backing its South China Sea claims.
It appears all but certain that in the coming weeks and months the US Navy’s 7th Fleet will conduct further freedom of navigation operations by air and sea within the South China Sea, potentially prompting China to at least assert for the record its territorial claims within the nine-dashed line.
But the US has now drawn a red line through the great wall of sand: over-flights and sail-pasts alone may not be enough to convince China to stop fortifying its island lairs.
Australia is considering how best to change the Chinese calculus on the South China Sea and steer an outcome towards dispute resolution governed by the rule of law rather than the rule of might.
The first step has been to update all too rehearsed government talking points.
Defence secretary Dennis Richardson and Andrews have now directly indicated Australian concern about, and indeed opposition to, Chinese land reclamation.
Tony Abbott is being briefed on South China Sea matters in detail: a speech from him in the near future clearly explaining the reasons for Australia’s opposition to unilateral attempts to change the South China Sea status quo would add weight to efforts of other regional nations, including the US, on this issue. But if Australia is to be an honest ally to the US, and a constructive player in managing US-China strategic competition, it must also even-handedly reiterate the importance of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Ironically, though the US spruiks adherence to international laws at sea, its Senate has thus far refused to ratify the 30-year-old convention codifying international maritime law.
Pragmatically, the US Navy operates within the rules established by UNCLOS. But the US absence from UNCLOS is counter-productive to its national interests, and drains moral authority from its leadership on South China Sea security issues. Australian leaders would do well to remind American counterparts firmly and often that US absence from UNCLOS undermines shared security interests in Asia.
Similarly, the case for UNCLOS needs to be continuously pressed in interactions with Chinese leaders.
Australia should also consider what steps it might independently take if it was serious about persuading China and other countries in the South China Sea to end land reclamation activities. We might, for example, investigate provisions to financially sanction the companies and individuals providing dredging and barge equipment involved in land reclamation activities. A provocative step to be sure, but one that could provide options to demonstrate resolve on this issue without invoking the use of military instruments. And the sort of move necessary if we are to deploy more than rhetoric to defend vital national interests in freedom of navigation.
Finally, if Australia is to join the efforts of friends and allies in exercising freedom of navigation around and across disputed features in the South China Sea, we must be even-handed in this too. After all, China is not the only country building islands in the South China Sea. And though others are building at a slower pace, they must also be convinced that unilaterally changing the status quo is counter-productive to regional attempts at building a lasting peace in the South China Sea.
This article was originally published at The Australian