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Chinese newspaper publishes ‘disturbing’ warning to Australia over South China Sea dispute

Chinese newspaper publishes ‘disturbing’ warning to Australia over South China Sea dispute
Charis Chang January 3, 2018

A CHINESE newspaper’s fiery opinion piece has warned about the consequences of Australia’s “bigoted actions” over the South China Sea.
Charis Chang

CHINA appears to be pushing back against Australia taking sides on the contested South China Sea, with one Chinese academic taking a “disturbing” dig at the “interference”.

In a fiery opinion piece published on New Year’s Eve, a Chinese commentator warned Australia that its “interference” in the area may prompt China to “adopt strong countermeasures which will seriously impact Australian economic development”.

The piece published by the Communist Party-owned newspaper the Global Times said Australia’s “bigoted actions have jeopardised not only China’s national interests, but also Australian long-term interests, bringing Canberra’s structural contradictions and strategic dilemma to a worse level”.

It said Australia’s “kissing up to the US” had led to an imbalance in Australian strategy and squeezed its strategic space.

“Over the South China Sea issue, Australia always follows the US and challenges China’s maritime sovereignty and interests,” the piece states.

“This will poison its relations with China, shake up foundation for its strategic balance between China and the US and reduce its independence of foreign policy.

Once Sino-US relations are strained, Australia will have to choose between the two countries and fall into a deeper strategic plight.”

Emeritus Professor Carlyle Thayer, an expert on the South China Sea at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said there had been mounting rhetoric from China against Australia ever since remarks were published in Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper about the South China Sea.

The white paper noted that China had caused “tension” in the area and that Australia was concerned about the pace and scale of China’s activities.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in shipping trade passes annually. It is also believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the sea, and the dispute has long been seen as a potential trigger for conflict in Asia.

“Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes,” the white paper said. “We support the resolution of differences through negotiation based on international law.”

In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang suggested Australia keep out of the issue.

“Australia is not a party directly concerned in the South China Sea issue, and it has made clear many times that it does not take sides,” he said.

“We hope the Australian side will honour its commitment and stop making irresponsible remarks.”

China has also not been happy with the Turnbull Government’s decision to introduce new laws countering foreign interference or to participate in a multinational military exercise in September that saw Australian navy ships cross into the South China Sea, earning a rebuke from China’s top naval commander.

Prof Thayer said the Global Times piece reflects extreme opinion in China, particularly on the military side.

“It can be taken seriously up to a point,” he said. “It’s an academic playing the game of trying to influence domestic policy in Australia ... but it’s disturbing because it threatens economic sanctions.”

Meanwhile, the US President’s apparent lack of focus on China’s island building has some experts worried who believe America is running out of time to intervene.

Tensions over China’s activities in the area appeared to ease in 2017 but this was not because construction stopped. Satellite imagery showed China continued to build up infrastructure on the Spratly and Paracel islands.

One US think-tank, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said that over the course of 2017, China continued “substantial” construction activities.

While works to expand the islets appeared to stop by mid-2017, China appears to have shifted to the next phase of development with construction of infrastructure to support air and naval bases.

AMTI identified about 72 acres (290,000sq m) of new permanent facilities on the islands since the beginning of 2017. These include underground storage areas and large radar and sensor arrays.

A website under the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper the People’s Daily noted the progress in December and also spruiked the introduction of a new super-dredger Tianjing, a “magical island building machine”, and other “magical machines” soon to come. It stated, “the area of the South China Sea’s islands and reefs will expand a step further”.

China is also building a floating nuclear power plant, the report said, to provide power for those living in the Sansha city area.

Satellite imagery released in December showed new facilities spread out across Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief reefs in the Spratlys, and North, Tree and Triton islands in the Paracels.

If these bases become operational, they will allow Chinese military to better patrol the area and potentially change the regional balance of power forever.

“If China does base ships there and move in weapons, it will complete their planning, it will make permanent their dominance of the South China Sea,” University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea director Jay Batongbacal told The Washington Post. “Because once they do that, they won’t be pulling back.”

As the possibility of China cementing its dominance in the area looms, experts noted the Trump Government didn’t seem to be engaged in the issue.

Hofstra University School of Law professor Julian Ku, an expert on the South China Sea, said no one in the White House seemed super focused on the area.

“I think it’s going to remain on the back burner, and that’s definitely going to help the Chinese,” Prof Ku told The Washington Post.

In particular, Mr Trump was criticised for appearing to soften the US stance on China during a much-anticipated 12-day tour of the Asian region in November.

Mr Trump refrained from making any public statements about the South China Sea while in China and instead heaped praise on President Xi Jinping.

Following criticism over the lack of outcomes from the trip, Mr Trump did speak about a free and open Indo-Pacific after returning to the US.

Referring to his visit to the Philippines and his meetings with President Rodrigo Duterte, Mr Trump said the US made one point clear at ASEAN.

“At ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, we made it clear that no-one owns the oceans,” Mr Trump said in his 25-minute speech from the White House.

Mr Trump’s comments came on top of earlier remarks he made in Manila ahead of his China visit where he said he remained concerned about China’s efforts “to build and militarise outposts in the South China Sea”.

But Park Strategies senior vice president Sean King, an expert on Asian politics, told last year the US President’s message was confusing.

“He also fawns over (Chinese President) Xi Jinping so, what gives?,” Mr King said.

“It’s kind of confusing to me, to be honest.”

Mr King applauded Mr Trump’s more aggressive patrols in the area but said he felt the South China Sea, in practical terms, might already be lost.

“Beijing’s apparently already bought off Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines while Vietnam’s now hedging its bets with mainland China after we left Hanoi high and dry by ditching TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership),” he said.

Professor Thayer said he thought America’s rhetoric had amped up but its actions hadn’t.

However, he said it would be difficult for the US to take action as it needed China’s help to keep North Korea in check and it also didn’t have a claim in the area.

“Everything is focused on the North Korea, so the South China Sea is not a priority,” Prof Thayer said.

America’s ally, the Philippines, is also choosing not to enforce an international tribunal ruling in 2016 from the Permanent Court of Arbitration that backed its claim in the area and found China had no historic rights.

“The Philippines won ... but it’s not pursuing this so there’s not much the US can do unilaterally” Prof Thayer said.

But he said the US was conducting more Freedom of Navigation Operations through the South China Sea and did more patrols last year than during the entire Obama administration.

While some are worried about the tensions in the South China Sea bubbling over, Prof Thayer believes it’s unlikely this will happen.

“I don’t see the South China Sea as being a hotspot or a source of tension,” he said. “China is not going to interfere with US warships or shipping as a lot of these are going to China.

“There is no way they will be blocking ships in the region.”

— With AFP