Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne has hinted that Australia may commence freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in a speech given in Singapore.
The speech was given to the Fullerton Forum, which is described as a ‘catalyst’ for the Shangri-la Dialogue held later in the year by hosting think-tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The forum is held as a ‘barometer’ of regional tension and an opportunity for states to put forth their defence policies.
In his speech, Minister Pyne rejected characterisations of the rivalry between the US and China as a new Cold War.
“I do not agree with commentators who have sought to describe emerging great power competition as a new Cold War,” Minister Pyne said. “It’s a simplistic and unsophisticated characterisation of what is a much more complex and dynamic geostrategic paradigm.
“Any division of the region into Cold War-like blocs is doomed to failure, since it would necessitate false choices between prosperity and security.”
The Minister also rejected the notion that the West is seeking to contain China, but acknowledged that the ‘increasing anxiety’ around China’s actions in its near abroad could warrant ‘multilateral activities’ reasserting freedom of navigation rights.
“We will face some difficult decisions about how to prioritise limited resources in this more complex and contested environment,” Minister Pyne said.
“The building and militarisation of artificial features in the South China Sea, for instance, has not increased regional confidence in China’s strategic intentions. Instead, it has increased anxiety.
“As such, we are open to conducting multilateral activities in the South China Sea to demonstrate that they are international waters.”
The ADF has so far resisted pressure to sail a warship within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands constructed across the South China Sea. Last year, three Australian ships were challenged by Chinese vessels during a transit to Vietnam.
The confrontation apparently involved ‘polite but robust’ dialogue, although senior government officials refused to comment further.
The ADF conducts overflights of the South China Sea using maritime surveillance aircraft posted to RMAF Butterworth in Malaysia. These are routinely challenged by Chinese radio broadcasts.