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China’s grim pattern in South China Sea needs a collective response

May 10, 2024 | Jennifer Parker

A quiet tussle is going on over China’s ambitions to control all of its neighbouring seas. A united response is needed before China miscalculates.

Image: Royal Australian Navy helicopter conducting SONAR dipping operations. Photo credit Defence Images

Interpreting China’s unsafe and unprofessional behaviour towards an Australian helicopter last weekend as an issue between China and Australia plays into the narrative from China of bilateral issues.

When it comes to this issue, Australia needs to view the forest through the trees. This incident is part of a wider problem – one that as a nation Australia must be willing to acknowledge and address using all elements of its national power, its regional standing and relationships.

The endangering of an Australian naval Seahawk helicopter by a Chinese jet fighter in the Yellow Sea is one of a series of aggressive incidents that demonstrate China’s resolve to use reckless, aggressive and dangerous behaviour to make its points about how it perceives its maritime periphery.

The incident, which endangered Australian Defence Force personnel, is one of a series of increasing aggressions from China in East Asia and the South China Sea and must be interpreted within this context. Approaching it as a bilateral issue or an individual incident

plays into China’s approach of explaining away incidents and normalising the behaviour.

This is not the first incident of China’s military assets endangering Australian ships and aircraft.

The Australian Department of Defence has released to the Australian public details of two incidents between Chinese aircraft and ships and Australian P8A maritime patrol aircraft in 2022. Both occurred in international airspace, and one was in the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone.

And in November 2023, Australian sailors were injured off the Japanese coast when a Chinese destroyer recklessly approached HMAS Toowoomba while radiating its sonar.

These are just the incidents that the Australian Department of Defence has chosen to release to the Australian public, based on the experiences of other countries operating in the region. There are invariably more.

The United States Pentagon released a series of 200 incidents of “unsafe and unprofessional behaviour” (read close shaves) between Chinese military aircraft and US aircraft in the South China Sea. Many involved the deployment of chaff and flares by Chinese aircraft, just like Australia’s experience.

In 2022, Canada also made public a series of incidents where China’s fighter aircraft were flying within six metres to 30 metres of a Canadian maritime patrol aircraft operating in international waters, also working to enforce United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea.

This aggression is not just confined to naval ships and aircraft. There are numerous instances of China’s coastguard and maritime militia ramming, water cannoning or otherwise harassing government and fishing vessels from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Whilst some of those countries may not choose to overtly publicise the incidents in the way Australia, the US and the Philippines have, there is no denying their occurrence.

China’s approach and declarations – such as the nine-dash line, a so-called historical claim to the entire South China Sea as Chinese territory, invalidated by the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal – show that China views the seas surrounding it as an extension of its territory. This is a position at odds with international law, and China’s aggressive approach to asserting this position is at odds with the security of the region, including Australia’s security.

The improved diplomatic and trade relationship between Australia and China has done little to mitigate the number of unsafe interactions between China and countries operating in the region.

The issue is not about the China-Australia relationship, which China would like us to think it is. It is about China’s claim to control the seas in its vicinity. Viewing it as an Australia-China issue will do nothing to address the wider problem.

China’s maritime aggression against countries operating in East Asia and the South China Sea cannot be separated from similar campaigns of cyberattacks and political interference. It is all part of a bigger-picture challenge, and Australia needs to take a bigger-picture approach.

To mitigate incidents that put the personnel of the ADF at risk, Australia must demonstrate that it is prepared to respond with its partners and allies to China’s comprehensive campaign in the region. This includes being prepared to use all aspects of diplomatic power, but also economic and informational power in concert with our partners and allies.

Responding to one incident will not address the issue. A comprehensive approach is the only way to demonstrate to China that the aggressive assertion of its claims, which put ADF personnel at risk, will not be beneficial in the long term.

It is only by doing this as part of an international collective that Australia can hope to avoid a miscalculation by China that leads to a wider regional conflict.

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