The recently retired Defence head Dennis Richardson has said Australia should carry out its own “freedom-of-navigation” naval operation to challenge China’s claim over waters surrounding artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Such a move would provoke an angry response from Beijing, but Mr Richardson, who has been a central figure in Australia’s security and foreign affairs establishment for the past two decades, said Australia should not tacitly accept the legitimacy of China’s man-made territory in the strategically vital waterways.
Asked whether Australia should carry out a naval freedom-of-navigation operation, Mr Richardson said: “I think at some point, we should … What that point is, being a good old public servant, I’d leave it to the government.”
The remarks are highly significant in that they come from such a senior and recently retired national security figure. Mr Richardson also led ASIO and the Department of Foreign Affairs and served as ambassador to Washington. He retired just over a week ago after a 48-year career.
He also issued a warning to China that North Korea’s nuclear program, if left unchecked, could spark a regional arms race with countries such as Japan and South Korea feeling they too have little choice but to go nuclear – a warning that has since also been expressed by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
The US carried out its first freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea under the administration of Donald Trump on Thursday morning, sending the USS Dewey destroyer within the crucial 12-nautical mile territorial zone of Mischief Reef, where China has built an artificial island.
Such operations are designed to signal that a country does not accept the legitimacy of Beijing’s claim to the waters around man-made islands built on submerged reefs that are subject to territorial disputes with China’s neighbours.
Thursday’s operation was the most defiant so far by the US in that the USS Dewey manouevred and carried out an exercise rather than just sailing quickly through the 12-mile zone as the US navy had done twice before under the Obama administration.
Mr Richardson stressed that Australia should neither telegraph its intentions nor carry out the operations recklessly but should nonetheless send the clear signal that it did not regard China’s claims as lawful.
“You don’t say anything in advance. You just do it. And you don’t have to do it all the time. If you picked your time and did it in the right way, I think that is a sensible thing to do.”
The law of sea was “very clear”, he said. Such man-made features did not generate a 12-nautical mile claim to waters around them.
“And for China to create artificial features more than 1000 kilometres from their own coastline and then want to claim territorial sea around them is not something that we should by implication accept,” he said.
Up to two-thirds of of Australia’s exports travel through the South China Sea. Strategic analysts and regional governments including Australia’s have become increasingly concerned by China’s steady militarisation of these artificial islands and its claims over surrounding waters. Those claims have been contradicted by a ruling by an international tribunal in the Hague.
On North Korea, Mr Richardson said China needed to realise it had as much interest as the US in reining in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
“How will Japan, how will [South] Korea, how will other countries in the region respond to a nuclear-armed North Korea with accurate missiles?” he said.
“What happens if other countries or some other country decides the only way we can safeguard ourselves is to be nuclear armed ourselves? Is that what any of us want?”