As Australians enter the end-of-year ‘doze zone’ they would do well to take time to watch a report, available online, prepared by the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, which lifts the curtain on China’s bid to permanently militarise the South China Sea.
Wingfield-Hayes and his crew defied threats from the Chinese Navy in order to video construction activity at several disputed coral reefs currently being turned into military airfields and bases through massive dredging and construction operations. The BBC report shows scores of ships moored around what previously were largely submerged atolls.
This is the modern equivalent of the Great Wall of China going up before our eyes––except that it’s not easy to train our eyes, or our cameras, on specks of land in a distant sea. China is counting on that.
The Spratly Islands are variously claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and, of course, China. Beijing is intent on resolving this long-running territorial dispute unilaterally, by chasing its rivals out of the area and using its engineering and military muscle to illegally transform several of the atolls into exclusion zones.
Wingfield-Hayes states the case succinctly:
China is bound by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which it has ratified. The law states that sub-sea structures, such as reefs, cannot be claimed as sovereign coastline, and that building artificial structures on top of them does not turn them into sovereign territory either.
A country that owns a natural island can claim a 12-nautical-mile territorial limit around it, both on the sea and in the air. But artificial structures do not confer any such right. In other words, we would be able to fly our aircraft right up to China’s new islands without breaking any international laws, and China should not interfere with our flight.
But interfere China did. As the BBC-chartered aircraft flew even within 20 nautical miles it was bombarded with radioed warnings: ‘Unidentified military aircraft [the aircraft was a single-engine Cessna, about as civilian as you can get] in west of Nanxun Reef, this is the Chinese Navy. You are threatening the security of our station! In order to prevent miscalculation leave this area immediately!’ Nanxun Reef, also known as the Gaven Reefs, naturally comprise 150 hectares of coral outcrops less than two metres above sea level at their highest point. Furious reclamation activity since last year has turned it into another fortress in the new Great Wall.
The biggest construction project, however, is at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, which, according to reports, is being turned into an artificial island twice the size of the US military base of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. At Mischief Reef, just 140 nautical miles from the Philippines coast, a new runway is also under construction. The BBC cameras caught a view of ‘the lagoon teeming with ships large and small. On the new land, cement plants and the foundations of new buildings’.
The United States and its allies do not recognize China’s bid to assert sovereign rights over virtually the entire South China Sea by means of this island-building exercise. The US military has undertaken well-publicised cruise and overflight operations to uphold ‘freedom of navigation’ principles. Australia, on the other hand, is attempting to steer a middle course––exercising the freedom, but on the quiet. The BBC chanced upon an RAAF aircraft traversing the area and sending out the following radio message:
China Navy, China Navy, we are an Australian aircraft exercising international freedom of navigation rights in international airspace in accordance with the international civil aviation convention and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea––over.
The BBC said the message was not acknowledged. But neither was any warning directed against this Australian military aircraft, as it had been against the BBC’s civilian plane even after it identified itself.
The RAAF overflight, conducted several weeks ago, was not publicised at the time by the Defence Department in Canberra. Only after the BBC report disclosed the incident did the Chinese acknowledge it. Beijing’s position is that it ‘resolutely opposes any country using freedom of navigation and overflight as a pretext for harming China’s national interest’. For now, however, it doesn’t want to draw Australia into the squabble and thus is content to play along with the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ gambit being run out of Russell Hill.
There is a big game being played out here from which Australia cannot hide. If our rights and interests are being impinged by China, as clearly they are under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, we should not hesitate from forthrightly defending them. Instead, we invite a Chinese entity, the Landbridge Group, which has close links to the PLA and the Chinese Communist Party, to operate the strategically important port of Darwin, and quietly watch as the new Great Wall goes up across the South China Sea, the main pathway to Darwin.
When Japan sent ships into the southern ocean to hunt for whales, Australia took it to the International Court of Justice to uphold its rights under the International Whaling Convention. It was a high profile, hard-fought case on a principle. China asks: Why should Australia involve itself in the South China Sea dispute when its ships and planes are still allowed to travel through unimpeded? Japan asks: Why should Australia object to another country catching an unthreatened species of animal that Australians don’t even eat? To both of them, the answer is the same: You signed up to be a good international citizen, behave like one.
Walter Hamilton is a former ABC Tokyo correspondent.