Australia has conducted a “freedom of navigation” flight near artificial islands China is building in the South China Sea. Analysts said the move could focus attention on Japan’s own decisions in the region.
In a radio transmission recorded on Nov. 25 during a reporting assignment in the South China Sea and released Tuesday by the British Broadcasting Corp., the pilot of a Royal Australian Air Force surveillance plane can be heard addressing the Chinese Navy.
“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. Over,” the pilot says in the recording.
When contacted by The Japan Times, the Australian Defence Ministry confirmed the flight.
“A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion was conducting a routine maritime patrol in the region as part of Operation Gateway from 25 November to 4 December,” the ministry said in an email.
“Under Operation Gateway, the Australian Defence Force conducts routine maritime surveillance patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea as a part of Australia’s enduring contribution to the preservation of regional security and stability in South East Asia.”
Operation Gateway is an Australian Defence Force deployment that traces its origins to the Cold War. It involves maritime surveillance patrols in the northern Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Asked if Beijing was aware of the flight, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stressed Tuesday that while China had “no problem with navigation and overflight freedom” in the South China Sea, “we hope other countries, especially those outside the region, will watch their words and actions, rather than bringing up troubles and deliberately complicating the situation.”
It was not known if the Nov. 25 flight came within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of China’s artificial islands. International convention allows countries to claim territorial waters within 12 nautical miles of their coastal territory. The U.S., Australia and many other nations do not recognize China’s claims to territory that includes most of the South China Sea.
More than $5 trillion of global trade passes each year through the waters, where Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan all have rival claims.
“We don’t know for sure if it was within 12 (nautical) miles of the Chinese feature, but it is significant that they made a point of saying they were in international airspace,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
According to Graham, the unannounced and apparently solo flight by the RAAF P-3C was “making the point, to the Chinese military but also wider audience, from a distinctly Australian position, that rights of overflight in international airspace are important and worth asserting.”
For Canberra, which has deep trade ties with Beijing, such operations will have more impact on China if the message is delivered as independently as possible, Graham said.
In late October, a U.S. Navy warship conducted a freedom of navigation patrol within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of the man-made isles China has reclaimed from the waters in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea.
Australia’s flights, however, have been done “in a deliberately low-key manner, in contrast to the U.S., which has been very public about its efforts,” said Nick Bisley, executive director of La Trobe Asia and a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
In a written analysis posted online, Bisley said it seems Australia wanted to send a message to China in a manner that does not raise tensions and would “contain damage” to the bilateral relationship.
While Australia’s move is unlikely in itself to prompt Japan to follow suit in the area, the flight could strengthen the hand of those in the Abe administration and the Ministry of Defense who want Tokyo to take action after voicing support for operations in the South China Sea.
On the sidelines of last month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even told U.S. President Barack Obama that he would consider sending the Self-Defense Forces to the South China Sea, though the Japanese government’s top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, later walked back those comments.
“I think Abe’s personal inclination would be for Japan to do more in the South China Sea,” said Graham. “As we saw with his comments in Manila, he sometimes gets ahead of himself … though nothing is still explicitly ruled out.”
But any such operation by the Maritime Self-Defense Force in the South China Sea would likely open up a can of worms for Tokyo, Canberra and Washington.
“I don’t feel it’s necessary to commit the MSDF to performing a kind of operation that it has never performed before,” said Graham.
Moreover, he said, a freedom of navigation operation by Japan would probably trigger more Chinese operations within Japan’s territorial waters.
Japanese SDF ships and aircraft routinely pass through the South China Sea, something Graham said serves the interests of allies. What would also help, he said, is if Japan is “more vocal about that than it has in the past.”
And in a year in which sections of the Japanese public were left confused and angry over the enactment of controversial security laws, Graham believes the government should do more to explain the importance of free commercial and military access to the South China Sea.
Some analysts say Australia might not welcome Japan pushing SDF assets around in the region, as Canberra wants to be able to express displeasure with Beijing while keeping China’s anger level low.
“Having U.S. allies acting together would be seen in China as provocative and would not achieve more,” said La Trobe’s Bisley. “Australia would probably welcome many countries individually doing what Australia has done, but not doing so in a coordinated fashion.”
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is due to hold talks with Abe in Tokyo on Friday, and although the overflight issue may be broached in private, experts believe there may be no further discussion of it in public.