World

South China Sea: experts clash over China threat to commercial trade

An Australian expert has challenged claims that China's build-up of artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea threatens commercial ships passing through the world's busiest waterways, declaring that they are "completely fabricated".

More News Videos

Bishop: Stability in South China Sea matters

Australia is not taking a position on competing claims to the South China Sea but stability in the area really matters to Australia says Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Greg Austin, a visiting professor at the University of New South Wales based in Canberra, says despite the "shock" expressed by strategic analysts China has not embarked on an operation to expand its territory and is defending what it sees as its historical claims.

"We shouldn't allow our shock at China's building up of artificial islands to somehow convince us that this is naked aggression by China," he told Xinhua, the Chinese news agency.

A local marching band welcomes the arrival of sailors aboard the USS Topeka as it prepares to be docked off Subic port ...
A local marching band welcomes the arrival of sailors aboard the USS Topeka as it prepares to be docked off Subic port in north-western Philippines. Photo: AP

"It's not naked aggression."

But Carlyle Thayer, an expert on the South China Sea from Australia's Defence Force Academy, told Fairfax Media that China is "definitely" expanding its territory through construction of the islands and has attacked rival claimant states, including Vietnam, on a number of occasions.

Advertisement

Professor Thayer cites charts by the US Office of Naval Intelligence showing that all the land reclamation by rival claimants amounts to less than 4 per cent of China's activities.

China is "slowly excising the maritime heart out of south-east Asia" while steadfastly refusing to clarify its claims, using vague "historical rights" arguments, he said.

Philippine Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te speaks after the court's decision that declared the constitutionality of ...
Philippine Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te speaks after the court's decision that declared the constitutionality of the deal to base US military units in the Philippines on a rotational basis.  Photo: Bullit Marquez

Professor Thayer said China's routine challenges to planes flying over the region have no basis in international law and that its three-kilometre-long runways on the islands are by far the largest, allowing bombers to be based there.

The comments came as the Philippines' highest court approved a deal allowing the United States to expand its military presence in the country in a move seen as countering China's claims in the flashpoint waters.

The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen, which in October sailed near Subi Reef, one of several artificial ...
The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen, which in October sailed near Subi Reef, one of several artificial islands that China has built in the disputed Spratly Islands chain in the South China Sea.  Photo: New York Times

The US has also begun making spy flights over the region in Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft based in Singapore, analysts and diplomats say, and the first of Vietnam's new advanced Kilo-class submarines have begun patrols to reinforce that country's territorial claims.

Professor Austin, a former Australian intelligence analyst who has studied the South China Sea for more than 30 years, described China's land reclamation as catching up on rival claimants which had built habitable forward posts on disputed islands.

A China Southern Airlines jetliner lands at the airfield on Fiery Cross Reef, known as Yongshu Reef in Chinese, in the ...
A China Southern Airlines jetliner lands at the airfield on Fiery Cross Reef, known as Yongshu Reef in Chinese, in the Spratly Islands. Photo: AP

Rhetoric is "stoking the level of political intensity" over the competing claims, given that Vietnam and the Philippines have airfields and military assets in disputed areas, he said.

"There is no evidence of any Chinese government attack or pressure on any commercial shipping in the South China Sea since 1949 when the Communist Party took control of mainland China, and even before," he said.

Goods worth more than $US5 trillion ($7 trillion) are carried by ships through the waters each year.

Professor Austin played down fears that war could break out over the claims.

"The recent tensions in the South China Sea are serious but they're more political than military," he said.

Professor Austin called on China to take a leadership role and settle the dispute, pointing to Beijing having negotiated the settlement of land borders in the past, including with the former Soviet Union and Russia.

The US's agreement with the Philippines will allow the US to build military facilities and maintain ships, aircraft and troops in the former American colony on a rotating basis.

The US has a similar arrangement with Australia to rotate US marines through Darwin.

The US maintained military bases in the Philippines for most of the 20th century but they were ordered closed in the early 1990s. The US facilities will be built within existing Philippine military bases.

The 10-year agreement was signed in 2014 but not implemented because of legal challenges.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino told reporters the agreement will allow the Philippine military to train with the most modern equipment in the world and allow a "generational leap in our abilities".

The US has increased exercises, training, ship and aircraft visits to the Philippines over the past year as part of US President Barack Obama's "rebalancing" of US forces to Asia.

China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

-with agencies

Follow FairfaxForeign on Twitter

Follow FairfaxForeign on Facebook