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As China island-hops its way across the South China Sea, should Australia be concerned about Beijing’s land reclamation activities? And should we be encouraging the US to take a tougher line, including “freedom of navigation” patrols close to the artificial islands China has constructed?It depends on how much you believe the hype.
There are several misconceptions, some of them dangerous, in current Australian discourse concerning the South China Sea and China’s increasingly assertive place in it.
The first of these is that the building of islands amounts to “annexation”. Under international law islands are natural features, not artificial. Therefore, sovereignty does not arise from building features at sea and inhabiting them. China can build as many islands as it likes, but they will not strengthen its claims over the South China Sea.
The second misconception is that ASEAN countries are doing “nothing” in relation to China’s actions. In fact, ASEAN states are acting largely in accordance with what Australian and US governments have been prescribing for several years now: seeking to resolve their disputes with China peacefully and in accordance with international law.
This is why in 2014 the Philippines submitted a suit to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague arguing that China’s nine-dash claim for the South China Sea was invalid. This is why Vietnam and Malaysia have made submissions to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to demarcate their Exclusive Economic Zones in the South China Sea legally.
It is also why ASEAN continues to publicly condemn China’s actions, most recently at the April 2015 Summit where it stated that China’s land reclamation would “erode trust and confidence” in the region.
If Australian commentators and policy elites believe this to be “nothing”, then it would appear to reveal a hollowness in our repeated calls for peaceful resolution according to international law.
The Australian public deserves a far more informed and nuanced discussion on the extremely complex issues at play in the South China Sea, rather than the simplistic depictions of a belligerent hegemon on rampage, requiring the intervention of the global sheriff and its loyal deputy.
This would emphasise that China could have no conceivable interest in obstructing maritime trade, as its overwhelming reliance on ship-borne oil from the Middle East attests. It would also note that progress can and does occur, such as China and Vietnam’s 2000 agreement on their maritime border in the Gulf of Tonkin.
To read the entire article by Greg Raymond, visit the Canberra Times website.