The most powerful navy officer on earth, US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift, has fired a broadside at China and other regional nations who are flouting international law in the South China Sea.
Speaking to a high-powered audience that included senior navy officers from more than a dozen countries at the Pacific 2015 expo in Sydney on Tuesday, Admiral Swift warned that “friction points” at sea and the “might makes right” approach of some countries (China) could lead to all out conflict in one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.
“If we are not willing to commit to resolve these differences peacefully, leveraging the tools of the international rules-based system that has served us so well for so long …. then are we willing to accept the likelihood that imposed solutions to these national differences at sea will seek us out in our supposed sanctuaries ashore,” he said.
Admiral Swift has some 250,000 sailors and marines, 2000 aircraft, 200 ships and 43 nuclear submarines under his direct command.
In a direct slap at China and its island building activities and no fly zones in the South China Sea, Admiral Swift said freedom of navigation could not be halted or encroached.
“It endures regardless of competing maritime claims, no matter how longstanding or disputed regardless of their being conceived by nature or manufactured by man.
It’s feared the tiny man-made islands popping up in the South China Sea could be a “flashpoint” of war. Their significance isn’t just the islands themselves but the ability to enforce sovereignty immediately around them.
As each island appears, China stakes a claim in the sea around it and this is the crux of the issue for China’s neighbours.
About 1500 hectares of land has been reclaimed by the Chinese. It gives the country another 12 nautical miles of territory at each new border, and also creates 200 extra miles of economic zones to dig for oil, gas and to fish in.
Admiral Swift: “There is no more direct path to unravelling the foundation on which this region has built its amazing growth and prosperity than one based on ‘might makes right’.”
He said he believed several countries, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan saw freedom of the seas as being up for grabs.
“Some nations in this region continue to impose superfluous warnings and restrictions on freedom of the seas,” he said.
“If even one of these restrictions were successful it would be a major blow to the international rules based system with ramifications well beyond the maritime domain.”
Speaking to the media after his speech, Admiral Swift said his warning did not apply only to China but to other nations around the world that challenged the global order and international law.
“We can’t afford to ignore the challenges and so many are focused on the South China Sea.”
Australia’s top military brass declined to join the debate during the opening session of the Seapower conference.
Army chief Lieutenant General Angus Campbell described the South China Sea situation as ‘very complicated’ and urged all sides to keep talking.
“When we stop talking things can become very bad,” he said.
When asked if they had concerns for Australian troops and flyers operating in and around Syria given Russia’s intervention the chiefs insisted there was no increased threat to our forces.
The tension has been building in the disputed area for several months. It escalated in June when it was revealed that China tested hypersonic glide vehicles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
It was the fourth time the missiles had been tested in 18 months and was viewed as a show of aggression by the US. Beijing denied it was a show of force and insisted the tests were “normal” experiments that weren’t directed at any particular country.
A month later the Philippines announced plans to station fighter jets and frigates on a former US naval base facing the growing islands. That country, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have a stake in the region.
And at various times Japan has waded into the controversy, telling China it was acting “unilaterally and without compromise”.
The dispute has obvious implications for the rest of the world. Countries like Australia risk being dragged into it — either directly in an all out war — or being caught in a diplomatic headache where Canberra has to balance its economic interest with Asia against its defence pact with the US, its strongest ally.
Earlier this year RMIT Deputy Dean, Global and Language Studies Professor Joseph Siracussa said the area was an “eight-and-half out of ten” in terms of its dangerousness.
“It might not be a nuclear war but it would be a hell of a mess and Australia and all of its neighbours would be dragged in,” he said.
- US State Department says China’s nine-dashed line in South China Sea wouldn’t pass any legal test (chinadailymail.com)
- Vietnam launches legal challenge against China’s South China Sea claims (chinadailymail.com)
- Asean chief says ‘can’t accept’ China’s South China Sea claims (chinadailymail.com)
- China rejects arbitration with Philippines in South China Sea dispute (chinadailymail.com)
- US would welcome Japanese air patrols in South China Sea (chinadailymail.com)
- Carter calls China ‘out of step’ in South China Sea (chippewa.com)
- Nine Ironies of the South China Sea Dispute (warnewsupdates.blogspot.com)
- Aquino pokes fun at Beijing’s South China Sea claims, praises Japan (globalnation.inquirer.net)
- US defense chief: China ‘out of step’ in South China Sea (nzherald.co.nz)
- China to host ASEAN defence ministers amid South China Sea tension (channelnewsasia.com)