Friday, December 18, 2015

South China Sea patrols ‘not close enough’

South China Sea patrols ‘not close enough’ 17/12/15 9:59 AM
South China Sea patrols ‘not close enough’
Australian warships and aircraft have made long-range patrols through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean for 30
And while they have not always been classified as freedom-of-navigation exercises, that is effectively what they are, ADF sources
have told The Australian.
The RAAF flights have been carried out from the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s Butterworth base, part of what the ADF calls
Operation Gateway, and intelligence gathered is shared with Malaysia and other allies.
While not secret, the average Australian would know little about them. Until, that is, it emerged this week that the crew of a
RAAF Orion was heard warning the Chinese navy that they were flying through a disputed area of the South China Sea.
Journalists from the BBC were aboard a chartered flight over the Spratly Archipelago, which China claims, when they heard the
Orion broadcast a message to the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
“China navy, China navy,” an Australian crewman was heard to say. “We are an Australian aircraft exercising international
freedom-of-navigation rights in international airspace in accordance with the international civil aviation convention and the UN
Convention on the Law of the Sea. Over.”
The BBC said the Australians repeated the message several times, with no apparent response.
An ADF spokesman confirmed the Orion was on a routine patrol, and The Australian understands that it did not fly over the
artificial islands. In October, US destroyer USS Lassen passed close to one of the structures.
Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said Beijing’s claims and legal entitlements were
commonly misunderstood and it had not claimed 12-nautical-mile territorial waters around any of the structures it had built.
Artificial islands were only entitled to a 500m safety zone and not to any airspace, he told The Australian.
“US and Australian freedom- of-navigation patrols that stay 12 nautical miles from an artificial island are counter-productive -
because they imply that China’s artificial islands are in fact islands under international law,” he said.
An “island” must be naturally formed and capable of sustaining human habitation or have an economic function. China claims all
the “islands and adjacent waters” enclosed within what it refers to as its nine-dash line, a massive area, and it routinely declares
air and sea space around these features as a security or defence zone.
“To assert freedom of navigation, the US Air Force and the RAAF should fly over these artificial islands and the US Navy and
RAN should sail just outside the 500m safety zone,” Professor Thayer said.
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