Diplomatic tensions surrounding disputed territories in the South China Sea could escalate dramatically following reports China is now putting weapons on its artificial islands in the area.
Australia’s defence force is considering joining the U.S. in flying and sailing “freedom of navigation” missions over the disputed territory, where China has been building islands by dragging sand from a reef and piling it up to create structures now being monitored by satellites.
Fairfax Media reports the Australian fly-over expeditions may occur as a result of heightened concerns that China is enhancing its military capabilities and reach across the maritime expanse.
The South China Sea is a strategically important trading route, especially for Asia-Pacific countries like Australia, as one-third of the world’s trade ships transit through the marginal sea.
According to Reuters, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday called on China and other Asian countries to put an end to island-building in and near the South China Sea.
U.S. military aircraft and warships have been operating their own “freedom of navigation” missions recently and Carter said these would continue as permitted under international law.
The missions are a way to directly contest Chinese territorial claims, according to U.S. military officials.
Australian officials are reportedly similarly concerned about the potential for China to introduce long-range radar and anti-aircraft guns on these islands.
At a Sydney forum last night Australia’s Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson said China’s moves to reclaim and build new islands in the South China Sea was concerning if there were military intentions.
“It is legitimate to ask the purpose of the land reclamation — tourism appears unlikely,” he said.
“Given the size and modernisation of China’s military, the use by China of land reclamation for military purposes would be of particular concern.”
Australian defence officials will reportedly brief prime minister Tony Abbott in the next two weeks regarding the situation and are expected to recommend fly-throughs, naval operations and exercises involving other regional partners.
Strategic threat assessments are also anticipated to be upgraded to help inform the government’s first Defence White Paper.
On Tuesday China released its own military White Paper, sending a strong message to “external countries” such as the US and Japan who are “busy meddling in South China Sea affairs”.
Here’s an extract from the White Paper:
On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied.
Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China. It is thus a long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests.
Last week U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea was undermining freedom and stability and risked provoking tension that could lead to conflict.