Greg Sheridan, THE AUSTRALIAN
26 January 2016
The Turnbull government is considering formal freedom of navigation exercises to dispute Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The national security committee of cabinet has, over a period of months, been briefed on all the available options and combinations possible for such an exercise by Australian planes or ships.
The Turnbull government has not decided whether to conduct such an exercise, and if it did so, when and exactly what form such an exercise would take.
Sources have told The Australian that freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea were discussed by Malcolm Turnbull in his recent trip to the U.S. Both the Americans, and a number of Southeast Asian nations, have communicated to Canberra their support for a separate Australian freedom of navigation exercise.
According to sources, the Japanese have offered to participate in such an exercise in partnership with U.S. naval vessels, but Washington’s judgment, at this stage, is that any circumstance that brings Chinese and Japanese vessels into potential unfriendly contact is best avoided.
Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and a number of Southeast Asian capitals have called for freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, and have criticised Beijing’s massive land reclamation activities and installation of potentially military bases in the disputed region.
A freedom of navigation exercise would involve sailing or flying within the 12-nautical-mile territorial waters zone of a disputed territory. Under international law, an artificial island cannot generate territorial waters.
Therefore, even if Beijing’s broad territorial claims in the South China Sea were valid, the artificial islands they built do not legally generate a 12n/m territorial waters limit.
Beijing has created several such artificial islands in the South China Sea. Under its “nine dash line” maps, Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea as Chinese territory.
In October, Washington sent the USS Lassen into a claimed Chinese 12n/m zone as part of a formal FON exercise. The U.S. also sent vessels through the territorial waters of land-reclamation structures created by The Philippines and Vietnam to demonstrate that it was not objecting only to China’s activities, although China’s land reclamation efforts dwarf all activities of other regional nations.
In November, an Australian air force plane flew over disputed waters in the South China Sea and was challenged by the Chinese navy, which advised the RAAF plane it was “threatening the security of our station” and told it to “leave immediately”.
The RAAF pilot involved radioed to the Chinese: “We are an Australian aircraft exercising freedom-of-navigation rights in international airspace.” The RAAF plane was not flying directly within the 12 n/m territorial water zone. Depending on the altitude of a plane involved, it can be difficult to triangulate its exact position in terms of territorial waters. The lower the altitude of the plane, the easier it is to make such calculations.
The Chinese are known to challenge planes and ships well outside the 12n/m limit of any of their claimed territories. Nonetheless, sources say both the number of RAAF patrols and their tendency to fly within areas where the Chinese don’t want them to fly has increased markedly over the past 12 to 18 months.
The Australian military routinely patrols in the South China Sea, under Operation Gateway. The flights typically take place from Butterworth base in Malaysia, and are normally undertaken by P3-Orion aircraft.
Although these planes have a role in anti-submarine warfare, the primary purpose of their patrols over the South China Sea is intelligence-gathering as part of the “five eyes” intelligence and surveillance operations.
The tempo of these operations had declined in recent years because so much of Australia’s military effort was devoted to the Middle East. This has been reversed in part to respond to Chinese activities in the South China Sea.
If the Turnbull government decides to conduct a formal freedom of navigation exercise, the Orions would be a likely way to do it.
However, Australia also frequently sends frigates, and occasionally supply ships, through the South China Sea on their way to port visits to friendly Asian nations.
Sources suggest the government directed that these missions go through the South China Sea when possible, rather than by any other route, to reinforce Canberra’s insistence on the rights of free passage and over flight in the South China Sea.
Australia traditionally sends its submarines into the