Satellite images show Subi Reef in the South China Sea before Chinese installations in 2012 and after in 2016. (Supplied: Google Maps/Ross Babbage)
China has gained “effective control” over the South China Sea and is using “psychological warfare” in its quest for territorial expansion, according to a new study which urges the United States and allies to do more to push back.
- Australia, US’s current policies failed to strongly challenge Beijing’s “adventurism,” report says
- Report author argues Australia’s Government must take stronger action in response
- Australian officials have been briefed on the contents of the report
The joint Australian and US report concludes current policies have failed to strongly challenge Beijing’s “adventurism” and suggests options for the new Trump administration to help free up the strategic waterways.
According to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, China has “by far the largest military, coastguard, and maritime militia presence in the region — they are deploying strong surveillance, anti-air, anti-shipping, and strike forces onto the artificial islands they occupy — and they are actively intimidating other parties in the area”.
Report author and former senior Australian Defence Department official Ross Babbage argues the Federal Government must take stronger action in response.
“Our northern approaches are becoming much more questionable,” Professor Babbage told the ABC.
“Ever since the Second World War we’ve assumed the United States and its close allies have really dominated the maritime environment — I’m afraid that’s really no longer the case.”
The report, titled Countering China’s Adventurism in the South China Sea, also details how China is conducting “psychological warfare” on the United States and its allies to undermine the willpower of the decision-making elites.
“They’re conducting information operations and spreading disinformation, they’re fostering pro-Beijing groups in allied countries, they are of course paying for Chinese media supplements from the People’s Daily,” Professor Babbage said.
“You’ve got Confucius Institutes which are Chinese-funded by the Chinese Education Department in ten universities in Australia and on top of all that we’re seeing Chinese intelligence operations in allied countries, including Australia, being pretty active.”
Video: A US think tank believes China has installed large scale weapons systems on islands in the South China Sea.
US, allies’ current diplomatic approach has ‘failed’
The ABC has learned that over the past week Australian officials, including senior military leaders, have been briefed on the contents of the report and particularly on what the findings might mean for this country under a Trump presidency.
“Australia certainly has demonstrated a willingness to do a lot, but a willingness to do more, I think, would be a very powerful signal in Washington in this time of transition to the new administration,” President of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments Thomas Mahnken argued.
The 70-page report by the independent Washington-based think tank finds China has been taking advantage of the Obama administration’s overly cautious approach to make substantial progress toward its goal of pushing Western forces and strategic influence out of the South China Sea and most of the Western Pacific.
“In consequence, an important question for the Trump administration is how the United States and its close regional allies, primarily Japan and Australia, can thwart Beijing’s expansionism,” it warns.
Professor Babbage argues Australia should now consider conducting its own “freedom of navigation” operations within 12 nautical miles of contested islands in the South China Sea, but stresses the measure cannot be taken in isolation of other actions.
He warns the current diplomatic approach of the US and its allies cannot continue.
“The truth is that policy has had no significant effect on what the Chinese have done,” Professor Babbage said.
“It hasn’t stopped them and whether you know the United States and Japan and Australia, all the allies have pretty well said the same thing — the truth is, it has failed”.
Vietnam, China, Malaysia have eyes on the prize
Rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping, the South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region.
At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups – the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.
Both chains are essentially uninhabitable, but are claimed by no fewer than seven countries, eager to gain control of the vast oil and gas fields below them, as well as some of the region’s best fishing grounds.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made claims to part of the Spratlys based on the internationally recognised Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 hundred nautical miles from a country’s coastline.
Based on the EEZ, the Philippines has the strongest claim on the Spratlys and their resources, with its EEZ covering much of the area.
However the lure of resources, and prospect of exerting greater control over shipping in the region, means that greater powers are contesting the Philippines’ claims.
China has made extensive sovereignty claims on both the Spratlys and the Paracels to the north, based largely on historic claims outlined in a map from the middle part of the 20th Century known as the ‘Nine Dash Map’.
Taiwan also makes claims based on the same map, as it was created by the nationalist Kuomintang government, which fled to Taiwan after the communists seized power in China.
Vietnam also claims the Spratlys and the Paracels as sovereign territory, extending Vietnam’s EEZ across much of the region and bringing it into direct conflict with China.
There have been deadly protests in Vietnam over China’s decision to build an oil rig off the Paracels.
One Chinese worker in Vietnam was killed and a dozen injured in riots targeting Chinese and Taiwanese owned factories, prompting 3,000 Chinese nationals to flee the country.
EEZ can only be imposed based on boundaries of inhabitable land, and this has prompted all the countries making claims on the region to station personnel, and in some cases build military bases out of the water, to bolster their claim.
Building and protecting these structures has resulted in a series of stand-offs between countries in the region, each with the potential to escalate.
China has been leading the charge with these installations, and has deployed vessels to the region to protect their interests.
Chinese coast guard vessels have used a water cannon on Vietnamese vessels, as well as blockading an island where the Philippines has deployed military personnel.