Australia’s air force chief said that China now challenges “nearly all” Australian surveillance flights over the South China Sea. Air Marshal Leo Davies told Sydney Morning Herald that the number of Chinese warnings to routine Australian patrols had increased, a byproduct of an increasing Chinese presence on disputed islands in the area.
The nature of challenges – radio broadcasts warning aircraft to leave the area – had not changed, much less escalated, Davies emphasized. The frequency however, has. “Nearly all” flights in the South China Sea were now being challenged by China. Davies attributed the rise in warnings to China’s island building and construction activities: “Because the Chinese have done the [land] reclamation, there is a greater Chinese presence,” he said.
“[W]herever we go on our normal Gateway patrol, we now find that there is an increasing number of locations where the challenge would occur,” Davies continued. He was referring to the “Operation Gateway” maritime patrols Australia routinely conducts in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Davies acknowledged that Operation Gateway had recently seen a “slight increase” in patrols of the South China Sea relative to the Indian Ocean.
Despite the challenges from China, Davies said the patrols would continue, as Australia had a right to conduct them under international law. That accords with a statement from Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne in the wake of the latest freedom of navigation patrol by the U.S. Navy on January 30. Payne said that “Australian vessels and aircraft will continue to exercise rights under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea.”
Whether or not Australia should formally join the United States in conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea has been a subject of debate in the country. Shadow Minister of Defense Stephen Conroy wrote an op-ed for The Australian arguing in favor of Australian FONOPS. “Australia should be prepared to act to support the international system in the South China Sea, and we should not be shy about our actions and intentions in doing so,” Conroy argued. However, some analysts (including The Diplomat’s Greg Austin) have argued that Australia doesn’t have much at stake in the South China Sea, and has little to gain from carrying out U.S.-style FONOPs.
Australia’s government might have found a middle path: asserting freedom of navigation without the fanfare (and diplomatic bitterness) that has accompanied U.S. FONOPs. In December, BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes reported overhearing an Australian broadcast to the Chinese navy in the South China Sea:
China Navy, China Navy. We are an Australian aircraft exercising international freedom of navigation rights, in international airspace in accordance with the international civil aviation convention, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Australia’s Department of Defense confirmed that it had conducted Gateway patrols in the region. Notably that confirmation came only after the BBC story came out, evidence of Canberra attempts to keep the patrols out of the headlines.