The government is correct to raise concerns about China’s attempts to extend its control of the South China Sea via land reclamation projects. Without explicitly blaming China, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews said yesterday:
“Australia has made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the South or East China Sea. This includes any large-scale land reclamation activity by claimants in the South China Sea, and we are particularly concerned at the prospect of militarisation of artificial structures.”
This is exactly what China is engaged in, in an attempt to give itself an advantage in this disputed area.
Australia’s long-standing position is that we take no sides in the dispute, but support a peaceful resolution and not unilateral action. A number of countries have unilaterally established artificial structures in the region, but China’s activities in turning reefs and atolls into artificial islands and then militarising them dwarfs the activities of other countries and threatens the chances of a peaceful resolution. It also offers enormous potential for instability and, perhaps, armed conflict.
The United States has directly criticised China’s activities and warned it will continue to assert its freedoms of navigation and flight in the region. In Andrews’ pointed remarks, the government is endorsing US concerns, a risky stance for a country that depends so heavily on its exports to China for its economic success. Nonetheless, the government has made the correct call: China’s activities pose a threat to Australia’s economic security because of its potential for regional instability. Some commentators talk of China requiring Australia to choose between its economic and its military interests. In the South China Sea, the choice is straightforward: China’s unilateral behaviour is a threat to both.