China has reportedly moved weapons to artificial islands it was building in areas it occupied in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea), a report in an Australian newspaper said on Thursday.
“Australian officials are concerned that China could also introduce long-range radar, anti-aircraft guns and regular surveillance flights that will enable it to project military power across a maritime expanse which include some of Australia’s busiest trading lanes,” a report in The Age read.
Australia’s Defense Secretary Dennis Richardson in earlier statements challenged China’s reclamation works on areas it occupies in the West Philippine Sea.
The Age report quoting sources said Australian diplomats have dropped “talking points” about Australia not taking sides in the multi-layered territorial contest, which Chinese officials have used as evidence of Australian support.
But a draft of Canberra’s first “defense white paper” said Australian intelligence agencies are upgrading their strategic threat assessment of the situation.
The revised strategic assessment, The Age report said, will show how the reclamations could enable China to greatly amplify threats of coercive force in order to play a gate-keeping role across hotly-contested maritime areas, if left unchecked.
“Fairfax understands that these concerns are prompting discussions in senior military circles that could lead to Australian naval officers and air force pilots embarking on ‘freedom of navigation’ missions to demonstrate that Canberra does not accept Beijing’s hardening claims,” the report added.
Fairfax refers to Fairfax Media Ltd., Australia’s biggest media company that owns the Melbourne-based daily The Age.
Among the “freedom of navigation missions” in the West Philippine Sea that Australian security officials are considering include overflights and “sail throughs” as well as exercises involving various regional partners. These will be discussed thoroughly when Australian defense and military officials meet with Prime Minister Tony Abbot in the next two weeks.
Japan, which is also mired in a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea, recently announced its participation for the first time in the US-Australian military drills called Talisman Sabre, which kicks off in July in Rockhampton and Darwin in Australia.
The possible involvement of the Australians in the West Philippine Sea dispute developed as US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told his Philippine counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin, on Wednesday that Washington’s pledge to defend the country remains “iron-clad” and called for an end to land reclamations in the South China Sea, officials said.
“First, we want a peaceful resolution of all disputes and an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamations by any claimant. We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features,” Carter said.
“Second, and there should be no mistake: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world,” he added.
Gazmin is in Hawaii where the US Pacific Command, a unified combatant command of the US armed forces responsible for the Pacific Ocean, is based for talks with the Pentagon chief.
Citing the 1951 Philippine-US mutual defense treaty, Carter “stressed that the US commitment to defend the Philippines is iron-clad,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
The meeting came as Carter embarks on a tour of Asia and amid rising tensions over Beijing’s massive effort to build artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Carter and Gazmin “agreed that all parties involved in the South China Sea should seek a peaceful resolution of disputes, immediately halt land reclamation[s]and stop further militarization of disputed features,” the Pentagon statement said.
Manila has said it will keep flying over disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea despite Beijing’s warnings.
Australian Defense Secretary Richardson on Wednesday said China’s “unprecedented” land reclamations raise questions of “intent” and risks of “miscalculation.”
“It is legitimate to ask the purpose of the land reclamation[s], tourism appears unlikely,” Richardson told the New South Wales state Parliament.
“Given the size and modernization of China’s military, the use by China of land reclamation[s]for military purposes would be of particular concern,” he said.
Malacañang on Thursday said it welcomes US Defense Secretary Carter’s statements, particularly his call on China to cease its reclamation activities, noting that other countries around the world share the same view.
“A number of countries have made statements expressing concern that China’s reclamation activities are not beneficial to the maintenance of stability and peace in the region. We continue calling for an unimpeded freedom of navigation and freedom of aviation over the disputed waters because this is crucial to the world’s economy and commerce,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said in Filipino.
“It has been Manila’s position not to take unnecessary measures like the reclamation work[s]China is undertaking because in our view, the status quo should prevail and all should wait for the arbitral tribunal to have a clear-cut ruling on how the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea applies in this dispute,” Coloma added.