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South China Sea: the strategic implications of China's artificial islands

Published 16 Sep 2015

On Tuesday 15 September, Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the ADF Academy in Canberra gave us his interpretation of China’s maritime build up. It was a sombre view. Determined never to suffer the territorial humiliations of the 19th and 20th centuries at the hands of European powers or Japan, China had developed a sense of entitlement to the South China Sea. Its military interests were entwined with fishing, oil and mineral extraction. It had a growing conventional navy, but its main enforcement arm was a substantial fleet of white-hulled patrol boats. These were reinforced by a very large fishing fleet equipped with sophisticated satellite systems. Fishing boats could call for back-up whenever required and were increasingly encroaching into areas traditionally fished by other littoral states, namely Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. China’s aim was to displace the US maritime presence and persuade the littoral states to accept China’s territorial dominance. China had legitimate interests, including the freedom of navigation, but so did its South East Asian neighbours. A 2002 agreement negotiated between the ASEAN countries and China called for the exercise of self-restraint in regional territorial claims. But China had established a massive base at Sanya on Hainan Island. In addition, it was busily creating artificial island bases from dredging operations, and expropriating and extending some reefs and islands claimed by others. From the Philippines, for example, it had appropriated reefs with Filipino names such as Kagitingan, Subi, Panganiban, Mabini and Calderon, and built them up for extended runways and housing facilities. China claimed its purpose in doing so was to improve living conditions for Chinese living in the area, provide bases for scientific research, search and rescue facilities, and shelter for fishing boats. But these were also bases for fuel storage, long-range radar and anti-ship cruise missiles, and many of them had runways long enough to receive even the largest aircraft in China’s military inventory.

Prof Carl Thayer & Richard Broinowski

Carl said the situation had obvious implications for Australia. In view of all that we had at stake in our relations with China, we naturally wanted to remain neutral and not take sides. Yet we had security obligations towards our neighbours and indeed to the United States, which China was busily attempting to displace from the area. We would be threatened if China had a mind to do so. Australian population centres were within range of ballistic missiles from the Sanya base on Hainan Island. And the strategic situation was shifting. Just to let us know they were there, Chinese naval units were increasingly patrolling straits and seas they had not done so in the past, including straits between Indonesian islands, between Indonesia and Malaysia, and in the Indian Ocean.

Report prepared by Richard Broinowski

For Professor Carl Thayer’s powerpoint presentation, please click hereĀ PP Thayer AIIA NSW Sept 15, 2015 final