Daniel Flitton, SYDNEY MORNING HERALD (AUSTRALIA)
16 March 2016
A resurgent trend of "might makes right" has settled over vulnerable waters in the South China Sea, the commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet has warned.
Speaking in Canberra on Wednesday, Admiral Scott Swift did not name China directly in a prepared speech, but was critical of "some nations" and what he called "unprecedented examples of aggressive construction and militarisation" on disputed territory.
China has been sharply criticised in the past year after dredging sand to build artificial islands at what had previously been coral atolls.
Admiral Swift warned a climate of uncertainty had been created by "thousands of acres of reclaimed land with newly constructed barracks, deep-water ports, extended runways, high power radars, surface-to-air missiles and squadrons of naval aircraft.”
U.S. warships have twice sailed close to China's artificial islands in the South China Sea to assert a right under international law to freedom of navigation, with Labor since calling Australia to follow suit.
Speaking to reporters at a conference on maritime security at the National Security College, Admiral Swift insisted any operation was a decision for Australia and said the debate about whether other countries followed the U.S. action was frustrating – "as if there is a checklist out there that in order to be relevant you have to check these things off as a country."
He said the issue went well beyond military concerns to questions about the rule of law.
His remarks are the latest in what is now a string of warnings by high ranking U.S. military officials about China's actions.
But debate has also raged in foreign policy circles in Washington over the U.S. response to Beijing.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott has cited the standoff with China as a justification for Australia to purchase its next fleet of submarines from Japan, with the multi-billion deal to cement strategic ties between democratic nations.
Japan's ambassador Sumio Kasaka told the conference that the submarine purchase would be mutually beneficial to Japan and Australia as "crucial partners.”
Admiral Swift said the U.S. is "agnostic" about Australia's submarine purchase, along with claims that purchasing Japanese boats – as opposed to competing bids from Germany or France – would make it easier for joint operations.
"I don't think it would make it easy for the United States, it certainly wouldn't make it any easier for me as the Pacific Fleet commander," he said.
Admiral Swift has command of about 200 ships, 1000 aircraft and 140,000 sailors in the Pacific Fleet.
The U.S. has not ratified the UN convention on the law of the sea, which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said diminished U.S. leadership during a visit to Washington in January.
Asked if the lack of ratification complicated his job, Admiral Swift said the U.S. military would act in compliance with the law of the sea.
He warned in his speech the rule of law offered the "gold standard" for settling disputes, but disputed waters in the region had become "increasingly vulnerable to a state-led resurgence of the principle of 'might makes right.’”
The Philippines has challenged China's artificial island construction in legal arbitration under the law of the sea, although Beijing has said it will not recognise the ruling.
Graham Fletcher, the head of the North Asia division in the Foreign Affairs department, told the conference it would be a mistake to China to disregard the proceedings.