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No Shangri-La – Sparks Fly Over the South China Sea.

In the lead up to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this year there was a flurry of action – and reaction – centered on the South China Sea.

China has been building artificial islands in the disputed regions of the South China Sea by dredging sand and building on top of submerged reefs. A number of these new islands have become large enough to port large vessels and host runways for heavy aircraft. As the region is subject to competing sovereignty claims amongst Southeast Asian nations including Taiwan, there is deep concern in the region and beyond that China will militarise these new islands and use force to satisfy its own far-reaching claims.

In late May the United States flew a P-8A maritime surveillance aircraft carrying a CNN news crew over the disputed Spratly islands. This was the first time US aircraft or naval vessels had invited public news organisations to accompany surveillance or patrol operations in the South China Sea. CNN was able to capture numerous warnings by the Chinese military that the US aircraft was flying through a “military identification zone” and that it should leave the area. This footage was replayed worldwide. It not only highlighted China’s increased efforts to assert its claims of sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, but also rising displeasure in the United States.

Within days of the US over-flights of the disputed area, China released its 2015 Defence White Paper. The most striking aspect of the paper is its heavy focus on the need to protect China’s maritime interests, and the need to build a navy to operate in the open seas. Even America’s over-flights earned a mention, with reference to nations which conduct surveillance in the South China Sea.

The ramping up of activity and rhetoric preceded what is arguably Asia’s most important security summit. The Shangri-La Dialogue, held in Singapore, is attended by the region’s heads of defence and has emerged as the annual event where regional and global powers are most likely to address the security element of China’s rising power. 2015 did not fail to live up to expectations.

In the hours prior to the commencement of the summit, the United States announced that it had detected the deployment of Chinese missiles on at least one of the contested features of the South China Sea. This announcement, along with the US surveillance flights and the Chinese Defence White Paper, ensured that the agenda of the Shangri-La Dialogue would be dominated by China’s activities in the South China Sea.

In his address to the forum, US Secretary of Defence, Dr Ashton Carter, made strong reference to China’s land reclamation activities. He called for nations to support the rule of law and allow freedom of navigation, for Southeast Asian nations to collectively act to secure its maritime region, and called for a halt to the militarisation of the South China Sea region. Most pointedly, Carter stated that the United States would continue to fly and sail in international waters where international law permitted. This was a direct defiance of China’s claims in the South China Sea and China’s protest of US over-flights, and a clear statement by the United States that it plans to oppose Chinese designs and is willing to lead Southeast Asia in opposition to Chinese regional maritime dominance.

China’s response was to immediately label Carter’s comments as unfounded and irresponsible, and to claim that China’s island building is beneficial for peace and stability. China’s address to the forum was made by Admiral Sun Jianguo, a Deputy Chief in the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army. China has only once sent its Minister for Defence to the Shangri-La dialogue, historically choosing to send relatively lowly ranked personnel such as Sun. This may be designed to relegate legitimacy to the event, or to protect a Chinese Minister from prying questions.

Sun’s comments were formulaic and straight out of the Chinese Communist Party playbook. Sun read prepared responses to questions after he put forward a presentation heavy on clichés with Chinese characteristics. “Win win”, “mutual benefit” and” peaceful development” were present among other commonly used Chinese diplomatic phrasings. But it was the reference to China’s actions in the South China Sea which held the greatest importance.

Sun called China’s island building as “legitimate, justified and reasonable”, claimed that the islands contribute to the public good through support for humanitarian and scientific work, and stated that freedom of navigation had not been affected. While the United States indicated that it would oppose Chinese actions in the South China Sea, China indicted that had no intention of changing its behaviour. Both countries have drawn a line in the sand, for now. The United States is hoping that Southeast Asian nations will take courage from US determination, and act collectively to deny Chinese dominance of the region. China is hoping that the US will flinch in the face of Chinese determination.

For its part, Australia’s Defence Minister, Kevin Andrews, spoke during his presentation of the need to adhere to international law and support freedom of passage. In direct reference to China, Andrews stated that Australia is opposed to large-scale land reclamation, the militarisation of artificial structures, and any actions that unilaterally alter the status quo of the region.

Andrews did not point the finger directly at China, thereby not upsetting Chinese sensitivities for public redress. However Australia’s support of the US position was clear. Since the conclusion of the Shangri-La dialogue, Australian officials including Prime Minster Tony Abbott have reiterated Australia’s stance on the South China Sea and added that Australia will also continue to deploy surveillance missions there. There was no answer to the question about whether Australia would send its vessels within the 12 nautical mile exclusion zone China has placed around its artificial islands, or whether Australia would follow the United States and fly over them. However these actions make clearer Australia’s difficult position in supporting its close relationship with the United States and supporting stability in the region, and retaining friendly relations with China, Australia’s largest trading partner.

The Shangri-La Dialogue did not provide the fireworks that some had suspected between China and the United States. Sparks did fly though with China and the United States increasing tensions as the region saw two great powers shape up over a line in the sand, literally.

Chris Farnham is the AIIA National Office Operations Manager. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. 

Published June 4, 2015