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Australia boosts PH in South China Sea dispute

/ 12:39 AM January 29, 2016

CANBERRA—The international arbitration case filed by the Philippines over disputed territories in the South China Sea  received timely diplomatic support from Australia on Tuesday, when Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declared that the case that had been boycotted by China would “settle once and for all” whether artificial reefs are entitled to territorial waters.

The Associated Press reported that Bishop, speaking in Washington, DC, said the ruling of the United Nations Arbitration Court in The Hague would be “extremely important” as a statement of international principle. The UN tribunal is expected to release its ruling later this year.

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Speaking at a seminar organized by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, Bishop said that although China had declared that it would not be bound by it, the tribunal’s ruling “will be embraced and upheld by all other nations with claims or interests in the region.” Over the past few months, China has constructed several artificial islands in the South China Sea to advance its sweeping territorial claims in the major maritime thoroughfare for world trade.

China says its claim has historical basis, an assertion that has brought it into conflict with other claimants, including the Philippines and Vietnam, and raised broad international concerns over its intentions.

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“In my mind, that arbitration will settle once and for all the question of whether or not  an artificial reef can create some kind of 12-nautical-mile buffer,” Bishop said. “Our belief is that it does not, as a matter of international law.”

Although Australia is not among the claimant governments in the South China Sea, Bishop said that like the United States, her country supports freedom of navigation and overflights in the area. She, however, sidestepped questions on whether Australia, a close ally of the United States, would follow it in conducting freedom-of-navigation missions close to China’s artificial islands.

Bishop also called on China and Southeast Asian nations to put in place a code of conduct regarding the South China Sea—an initiative pushed by the Philippines that has made little headway in the past 10 years in  Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “We want to see deescalation of tensions in the region,” she said. “We would hate for there to be some kind of miscalculation that would lead to conflict.”

Australia, the United States and Japan are three of the naval powers in the Asia-Pacific region that can resist China’s territorial expansion and encroachment that have bullied its militarily weak neighbors.

A more alarming outlook was published recently in the Australian media. In an article run by the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2015, John Garnaut, Asia-Pacific editor for Fairfax media, wrote that China was “ready to launch military power from artificial islands in the South China Sea.”

Garnaut went on to say that as China continued to build a series of islands in the disputed waters, concern was building that the altercations of the past would resurface in the region.

Here is a summary of Garnaut’s scenario:

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“China has won the first round of its contest for control in the South China Sea, by completing construction of an archipelago of artificial islands.” He quoted senior Australian sources as saying: “There is little that will stop China from winning the next round, too, as an indecisive US administration and allies, including Australia, start to follow an earlier promise to challenge unlawful Chinese claims with ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises.”

By 2017, military analysts expect that China would have “equipped its new sand islands with ports, barracks, battlements, artillery, air strips, and long-range radar systems that will enable it to project military and paramilitary power into the farthest and most hotly contested reaches of the South China Sea…. These facilities would give China the ability to obstruct other claimant countries and potentially disrupt sea lanes that carry more than three-fifths of Australia’s merchandise trade. … China is ready to launch military power from the Spratly Islands [which are also claimed by the Philippines].

“While the US and its allies have struggled to follow talk with action, fleets of Chinese dredges have completed reclamation work, including the foundations for a second 3,000-meter airstrip in the area, on Subi Reef,  which will be capable of landing the largest aircraft carrier of the People’s Liberation Army.”

The reclamation work has largely been completed in time for President Xi Jinping to make a smooth state visit to Washington in a fortnight’s time, following the massive deployment of Chinese dredges in the Spratlys.  With the results of the reclamation work already in place, the question has been raised: What can  diplomatic initiatives or protests do to roll back the fortresses of sand that defend China’s claims?

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TAGS: Australia, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, sea dispute, South China Sea
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