All is not quiet on the Spratlys front
CANBERRA—The entire Christian world celebrates Christmas with the universal message of peace on Earth as the seas across the Asia-Pacific churn with rising tensions over territorial disputes in the Spratly chain of islands.
On Christmas Eve, BBC News reported hostile communication exchanges between China’s Navy and Australia’s Air Force, which was then conducting a freedom-of-navigation flight over the South China Sea—a flash point of the conflict between China and its neighbors over rival claims on these territories.
This column is not intended to dampen the Christmas spirit now pervading Christendom. It is meant merely to present the reality on the ground that should deflate false hopes that all is quiet on the Pacific front as China and other countries in the region, including the Philippines, ramp up the tensions over their respective claims.
BBC published the following radio recording of the message of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilot to the Chinese Navy: “China Navy, China Navy. We are an Australian aircraft exercising international freedom of navigation rights, in international air space, in accordance with the international civil aviation convention and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Over.
According to BBC, it recorded the flight’s audio from an RAAF AP-3C Orion surveillance aircraft early on Nov. 25. It said the message was repeated several times by the RAAF pilot, but no response was heard from the Chinese Navy.
China claims practically the entire South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in world trade passes each year, in the face of opposing claims from Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang has said that Beijing “resolutely opposes any country using freedom of navigation and overflight as a pretext for harming China’s national sovereignty and security interests.”
Although the Department of Defense in Canberra confirmed that the flight took place between Nov. 25 and Dec. 4, the government, to date, has never publicly acknowledged that Australia has conducted a “freedom of Navigation” exercise in the region. “A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion was conducting a routine maritime surveillance patrol in the region as part of Operation Gateway from Nov. 25 to Dec. 4,” the Defense Department said.
It added: “Under Operation Gateway, the Australian Defense Force conducts routine maritime patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea as part of Australia’s contribution to the preservation of regional security and stability in Southeast Asia.”
At least one China analyst in the United States says that the Australian flight was not surprising given recent discussions about freedom-of-navigation exercises in America. “The attitude of Australia might be read by the Chinese government as taking sides,” said Nong Hong, executive director of the Institute for China-America Studies, a Washington-based center set up by a Chinese government think tank. “If Australia is sending aircraft to test freedom of navigation, it will be read by China as: ëAre you really thinking that China has created trouble for freedom of navigation? If not, then [why conduct the flight] at this time?”
But Nong does not believe that such flights will affect the relationship between Australia and China, and points out that the South China Sea will not play a major role in general relations. “Between China and Australia, we have other areas for a very positive and neutral relationship,” he said.
Nevertheless, China’s foreign ministry has indirectly accused Australia of “creating trouble.”
The Chinese spokesperson said Beijing had made its position clear: “I’d like to reiterate that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is out of the question. Countries outside the region should respect other countries’ sovereignty instead of creating trouble.”
In answer to a question about American concerns over a growing arms race in the region, Nong said: “Some countries have been playing up tensions in the South China Sea with the purpose of creating chaos, so as to get involved and interfere in China’s affairs in the South China Sea.”
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