December 16, 2015

Australia's low key FONOPS of disputed South China Sea islands

In late November 2015 BBC journalist Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was conducting a BBC private Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) near Mischief reef claimed by China. Wingfield-Hayes recorded the (late Nov or a week later voice...?) of an Australian RAAF airman whose Orion maritime patrol aircraft (see Youtube below) had been contacted by a Chinese Navy chap on an island. Wingfield-Hayes published an article on Dec 14-15, 2015 describing the encounter:

""China Navy, China Navy," the voice said. "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."

We heard the Australian message being repeated several times, but did not catch any response from the Chinese side.

The purpose of such flights is to demonstrate to China that countries like Australia and the US do not recognise its newly manufactured islands.

But they do exist and China is already enforcing a 12-nautical-mile exclusion zone around them, or trying to. At Fiery Cross the warnings began at 20 miles..."

Late November 2015 BBC journalist Rupert Wingfield-Hayes' BBC  FONOPs near Mischief reef    when he recorded an Australian Orion aircraft talking to the Chinese Navy. A longer explanatory Youtube is here.

The blue dots are some of the Spratly islands/reefs China is building up/fortifying in the South China Sea. Mischief reef is particularly contentious as it is only about 200 km from the Philippines island of Palawan (the BBC private aircraft FONOPS took off from Palawan then landed there). Philippine fisherman have long shared waters around the reef with Chinese and other fisherman, but now the waters are "China only". Strategic position and suspected undersea oil are worth more. (Map courtesy Philippine Government via BBC).


Australia under Operation Gateway conducts periodic Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) near islands that China is fortifying in the South China Sea. China has not been publically complaining about the Australian FONOPS because Australia has not been publicising the FONOPS. So like much of diplomacy all has been at a low key, unstated, non-confrontational level.

Australia clearly did not want to escalate the FONOPS to a fully publicised USS Lassen style confrontation. So a rhetorical device was constructed of a UK journalist (conducting a BBC FONOPS...) just happening to pickup an Australian-Chinese radio discussion (during a vague multi-day period).

Anyway China subsequently commented, but none too severely.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei responded mildly on December 15, 2015 to "Dorothy Dix Questions" about Australia's and the BBC's South China Sea FONOPS.

"Q: According to the BBC, an Australian military aircraft might have taken part in a freedom of navigation flight in the South China Sea in late November or early December. Is the Chinese side aware of that? What is your response?

A: We have made our solemn position clear on many occasions. I would like to stress again that there is 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 in the South China Sea.

Q: In late November, BBC journalists took a civilian aircraft around four reefs built by China in the South China Sea. They were warned off by the Chinese navy each time and they were further than 12 nautical miles from these reefs. Given that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea says that artificial islands do not have maritime territorial rights, how does that qualify as freedom of navigation being unaffected by China’s construction activities?

A: China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha islands. While exercising freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, relevant countries should respect China’s sovereignty and security."

No missiles or guns fired. May it stay that way.



Anonymous said...

We must beware of China and not forget the Rio Tinto espionage case. The international freedom of navigation rights conducted by Australian aircraft is perfect right.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous

Yes the

"Stern Hu was sentenced to 10 years jail" for receiving bribes (usually called "commissions" = standard business practice in most countries).

It seemed a warning to other ethnic Chinese that they are disloyal to the Motherland if they bargain with China.

Anonymous said...

Defense News reported that on October 24, the Chinese submarine that was shadowing the Ronaald Reagan CVN task force in the sea of Japan simulated an Ashm attack. The Chinese sub was of course closely monitored for the USN to know that an attack simulation was executed.
The Chinese attack submarines are for sure at the forefront of an anti access strategy. With that kind of game, one side will miscalculate sooner or later.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pete,

I was wondering whether you would comment on a recent story that a Chinese submarine conducted a simulated attack on a CVN. What would in your view constitute a simulated attack from a submarine?


Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous 1 [Dec 18, 8:39AM] & Anonymous 2 [Dec 18, 8:49AM]

Thanks for raising: Chinese sub shadowing USS Ronald Reagan in Sea of Japan simulated an ASCM attack - I'm working on a reply article that should be out Dec 20th.