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Digging in: China redoubles push in the South China Sea

Recent satellite imagery has revealed renewed Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea with the deployment of fighter aircraft to Woody Island. The deployment comes amid growing tensions in the Middle East drawing the attention of the US, raising the question – how does Australia respond?

China’s pursuit of regional primacy has prompted the nation to pursue the development of an integrated system of natural and man-made island fortresses. Dominating and controlling foreign access to the South China Sea through which approximately US$5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes annually serves as a potent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) system as a buffer for expanding China’s designs for south-east Asia.

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The growing deployment and respective capabilities of China’s armed forces, particularly the force projection capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in particular have prompted increased concern from established regional powers, including Japan, Korea and Australia.

Additionally, smaller regional nations with competing territorial claims and ancient fears of Chinese expansion, namely Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, have all raised growing concerns about China’s militarisation and reclamation programs in the South China Sea.

In response, the US announced its ‘pivot’ towards the Indo-Pacific under the former Obama administration in 2013 moving to reassure regional US allies like Australia, Japan and emerging allies like Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam that the pre-eminent global power was committed to the enduring freedom and stability of the region.

Despite these early reassurances and renewed investment in the strategic capabilities of the US military under the Trump administration – the global responsibilities of the US, particularly in the Middle East, and the potential for conflict with Iran has once again draw the attention of the US providing an opportunity for China to enhance its military presence in the South China Sea.

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Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at ASPI, set the scene, telling Defence Connect, "If war does break out between the United States and Iran I would expect to see nations like Russia and China move to exploit a distracted US – with China's moves likely to be made in the South China Sea." 

Taking advantage of a distracted US

China has actively sought to counter traditional American and allied capabilities in both the South China Sea and the broader Indo-Pacific. This has included developing traditional power projection capabilities like aircraft carrier strike groups, increasingly capable fleets of nuclear and conventional powered attack and ballistic missile submarines, upgraded strategic bomber forces, highly capable fighter aircraft, and advanced ballistic and cruise missile systems.

Each of these platforms serves as an integral component within China’s rapidly developing ‘system of systems’ and broader joint power projection and A2/AD networks – this balance of traditional force structures, supported by asymmetric platforms, has served as a potent deterrent in the region. 

"China's forward deployment of the J-10s to Woody Island will enable China to more broadly extend their control of the airspace over the South China Sea. Woody Island enables an expanded air control capacity over aircraft based at Hainan Island and could potential preclude a Chinese push toward the Spratly Islands, challenging Vietnam's interests," Dr Davis explained.  

The forward deployment of these aircraft, broadly comparable to the latest block of Lockheed Martin F-16s and the Royal Australian Air Force Classic F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft, comes in line with Chinese developments at both the Spratly Islands and Fiery Cross Reef, which has seen the construction of immense military facilities that accommodate nuclear-bomber capable airfields, deep water ports for Chinese naval vessels, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance facilities and batteries of advanced anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and advanced integrated air and missile defence systems.

Australia's response?

Australia has moved to support enduring US-led freedom of navigation patrols throughout the region as part of Operation GATEWAY, which is Australia's commitment to preserving regional security and stability in south-east Asia – with a specific focus on both the north Indian Ocean and South China Sea. It is important to recognise that should the US be distracted by conflict in Iran, Australia could be required to play a bigger role in the region. 

"I don't think at this point in time the Australian government would push for a new Australian freedom of navigation operation in the event of war with Iran – this would not only see a distracted US, it would also see the US expecting a contribution from Australia which would serve to stretch Australia's significantly smaller military capabilities," Dr Davis explained. 

"At this point in time it is a case of 'watch this space'. We are far from seeing the end of the situation with Iran – which will only get more complicated as the nation edges ever closer to withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCA) and developing its own nuclear capability. As I stated, I would expect to see nations like China and Russia push to exploit strategic distractions in the Middle East."

Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually. Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean and its critical global sea-lines-of-communication, are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world's seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy. 

Australia is not immune to these geo-political and strategic factors and, as an island nation heavily dependent on sea transport – with 99 per cent of the nation's exports, a substantial amount of its strategic imports, namely liquid fuel, and a substantial proportion of the nation's domestic freight depending on the ocean – it is a necessity to understand and adapt and introduce a focus on maritime power projection and sea control.

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Digging in: China redoubles push in the South China Sea
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