Australia and other countries are currently pushing for freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, in response to China’s aggression and illegal claims in the region.
For the immediate future, these countries should have a permanent presence in this area to ensure freedom of navigation for international trade vessels and local fishermen.
The recent ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) stated that the South China Sea does not belong to China, and that China has illegally invaded, and continues to occupy, islands owned by the Philippines.
While the PCA cannot enforce its ruling, there is no reason that the USA, Australia and allies cannot enforce it if China continues to interfere with freedom of navigation in the region, and seeks to control the entire South China Sea. India, Japan , South East Asian, EU, Anglosphere and other countries have already expressed intentions to do so.
Since that ruling was handed down, China have dropped all pretence to freedom of navigation, and have openly stated their intention to have complete control of the South China Sea. The only way they can do this is to occupy all the islands in the area, all of which belong to other countries according to the PCA’s ruling. This would mean multiple invasions of multiple countries’ sovereign territory, something which should be stopped.
China have previously stated an intention to illegally invade and occupy various islands in the South China Sea, including a detailed plan in 2014 to seize Pag-Asa Island, which was first exposed by China Daily Mail. This plan was put on hold when the US stated they would defend Pag-Asa, but China will need to occupy this island if it is to control the South China Sea as it has clearly stated.
In 2012, a Chinese television host also stated that the Philippines belonged to China, so there is the possibility of major invasions of other countries in the region. While this may have been an error, the Chinese government never retracted the statement, never denied ownership of the Philippines and never apologised for the remark.
More importantly, in 2013 China made “laws” that allow them to stop ships in the South China Sea, board those ships, and deny them entry to the South China Sea. This would mean they could block supply to countries in the region unless they concede to Chinese demands, especially Japan, with whom China has an obsessive hatred.
China could also resort to state-sanctioned piracy by holding these ships to ransom, as they did with a Japanese ship in retaliation for Japan’s refusal to concede the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Given that their economy is in serious distress, this would be a good money earner for them.
There were also concerns that Russia may align with China in the South China Sea, but Russia have indicated that they would not side with China in a war over the region, and that China should accept the PCA’s decision. Russia also has a lot to fear from China’s control of the South China Sea, as China could block supply to Russia’s eastern ports, and China have previously expressed their intent to “reclaim” Siberia and the Asian section of Russia. There is a possibility Russia may also conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea alongside America and her allies.
As China tends to act quickly and without much forethought in retaliation for what it perceives as conspiracies from the west, it is likely that any actions from China will be swift. For this reason, America, Australia and other countries should also act quickly in commencing the freedom of navigation patrols.