By Gavin Fernando
A SENIOR defence expert has warned it’s “too late” to stop China from taking ownership of the South China Sea.
Former head of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Sir Angus Houston said China’s controversial ramp-up of its military presence is almost complete.
Sir Angus, who was chief of the ADF from 2005 to 2011, said he had seen images of the militarised islands suggesting China’s presence was permanent.
“I have seen the imagery (and) what you see is infrastructure going in, and it is not going to be too much longer before it is fully developed,” Sir Angus told the National Security College conference in Canberra on the weekend.
“All of this development will enable China to dominate the South China Sea and extend its permanent military presence further south in proximity to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.”
While strengthening its presence in the South China Sea is a long-term goal for Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping has previously pledged not to “militarise” the disputed region.
But US military officials have told a different story, claiming Beijing has “hundreds” of surface-to-air missiles that will be moved to the disputed islands over coming months.
“In my view it is too late to stop the China program in the South China Sea,” said Sir Angus. “What is important now is to ensure freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage.
“We also need to find ways to resolve territorial disputes in accordance with international law and discourage nations from acting unilaterally in a way that threatens the peace and stability in our region. From here a prudent approach is necessary.”
He urged the US to seek greater engagement with China through strategic partnerships.
“The US needs to engage with and make space for China,” he said. “In my view we need more co-operation and less competition.”
TENSIONS WITH US CONTINUE TO BOIL
Any hope China had that Donald Trump was bluffing with his threats is likely beginning to shatter.
In his first few days of entering the White House, the President made it clear he was going to follow through on his signature election promises.
Prior to entering the White House, Mr Trump promised to go after Beijing by imposing a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese goods.
He also sparked tensions by accepting a phone call from Taiwanese Prime Minister Tsai-Ing wen in December, and has suggested he’s not afraid of a military contest over Taiwan or the South China Sea.
Until now, media mouthpieces for the Chinese government have responded saying his threats would be taken with a grain of salt until he entered the White House.
In December, when Mr Trump said America’s “One China” policy was up for negotiation, the Global Times responded: “Since (Mr Trump) has not taken office, China has kept a calm attitude toward his provocative remarks.
“But if he treats China after assuming office in the same way as in his tweets, China will not exercise restraint.”
But now, it may be dawning on Beijing that it was a misjudgment to assume he was bluffing.
Experts have told news.com.au China would not yet be capable of winning a military war with the US — if one was to break out. It’s therefore presently in Beijing’s interests to partake in negotiations rather than resort to a stand-off.
However, the Trump Administration is yet to detail if or how it plans to counteract China’s pursual of its territorial claims in the region.
At the Canberra conference this past weekend, former Japanese defence minister Satoshi Morimoto said he fears Mr Trump could strike a secret trade deal with China that would allow it to increase its military activities in the region.
At the Canberra conference, he said the President could directly negotiate with Beijing on a deal that suited its short-term interests, according to The Australian.
“My personal concern on the unpredictability of Donald Trump and the trend of the Trump administration is the future prospect of US-China relations. Especially, I worry President Trump may make a deal and a compromise with China,” Mr Morimoto said.
WHAT WILL IT MEAN IF CHINA TAKES CONTROL?
The South China Sea is one of the world’s most important strategic waterways, and may contain reserves of natural resources worth trillions of dollars.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims to the region too, but China’s is most heavily-backed with naval military patrols and island-building.
If Sir Angus is right, and China does indeed take ownership of the region, it will fundamentally change the world’s power structures.
Ross Babbage, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argues the US and its allies (including Australia) need to implement a solid strategy to counter China under the lead of the Trump administration.
In a report released last month, he warns there are five key consequences if Western leaders fail to combat China’s claims to the hotly-contested region.
First, Dr Babbage says giving Beijing control over such a massive transport and communications expanse will shake up the whole security environment in the Western Pacific region — which includes Australia — and warns this could “seriously complicate many types of future allied operations in the region”.
Second, he argues it will undermine decades of work that have gone into building frameworks of international law that govern how countries relate to each other.
Finally, he warns that if China is successful, this will just be the beginning. The rising superpower will be able to use the West’s inability to stop them as an invitation to go after other strategic territories and take part in other “highly assertive operations”. Even more worryingly, he says this message of the West’s “weakness” could extend to other non-western powers beyond China, like Russia, North Korea and Iran, as well as to a range of terrorist groups.
WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE OF BEIJING RAMPING UP MISSILES?
Last month, it was reported China was preparing to mobilise “hundreds” of its surface-to-air missiles stationed in Hainan Island.
US military officials said the missiles, which Beijing shipped to its non-contested Hainan Island in the South China Sea, would be moved to the country’s disputed man-made islands over coming months.
The officials told Fox News Hainan Island would likely serve as a training site before the missiles are deployed to the disputed Spratly Islands or Woody Islands this year.
The equipment included a number of short, medium and long-range weapons. One of these, a military unit of the advanced SA-21 system, would be capable of knocking out aircraft from more than 400km away.
The officials also said the total number of surface-to-air missiles on Hainan could reach 500.
In November last year, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative think tank (AMTI) reported that China appeared to have installed weapons on all seven of its artificial islands in the region.
AMTI said it had been tracking construction of hexagonal structures on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs in the Spratly Islands since June and July. China has already built military length airstrips on these islands.
A fresh batch of satellite photos taken in November show these are being completed as point-defence fortifications housing radar-guided anti-aircraft and antimissile guns.
China has maintained military construction on the islands will be limited to necessary defensive requirements.
Australian News Group