China has placed surface-to-air missiles on one of the Paracel Islands group. Photo: marcintothemoon/instagram

Facing reality in the South China Sea

18 February 2016

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Senior Lecturer

Convener ASEAN Australia Defence Postgraduate Scholarship Program

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The news that China has placed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, part of the disputed Paracel Islands group in the South China Sea, will surprise many observers.

In September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that China did ‘not intend to pursue militarisation’ of the Spratly Island group, also located within the South China Sea.

But for those following the issue closely, a tit-for-tat dynamic is apparent: Chinese land reclamation activities lead to US Navy freedom of navigation operations, which lead to the construction of runways for Chinese military aircraft, which leads to further condemnation from America, Australia, and other Asian countries.

Though, to Australian or American eyes, China’s conduct appears revisionist and dangerous, through Chinese eyes American actions seem antagonistic and aggressive. Each side believes its own actions to be clearly defensive, and the adversary’s decisions clearly offensive.

Australia has obvious interests in the South China Sea – a significant proportion of our trade passes through these waters, and Australian aircraft fly over this area daily. The risk of conflict in this area is relevant to Australia’s economy and security. The destruction of a Malaysian Airlines flight, MH17, over Ukraine shows that jittery soldiers can’t always distinguish a civilian aircraft from a military one.

But rather than thinking about how this tit-for-tat cycle of escalation might be stopped, it seems that all parties involved are focused only on their next move, as if the next freedom of navigation operation – or the next upgrading of Chinese military facilities – will convince the adversary to back down.

Australia’s National Security Committee of Cabinet is reportedly considering whether or not the Royal Australian Navy will conduct a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. But what signal, exactly, would this action send? Will adding our minor strategic weight to that of the United States change China’s thinking? Or will it only further fuel this cycle of action and reaction?

To read the entire article by Iain Henry and Greg Raymond, visit the Canberra Times website.

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