China creates new islands
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Margot O’Neill
China is creating artificial islands in the South China Sea and building military facilities on the islands.
EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: While international attention has centred on the conflict with ISIS in the Middle East, China is flexing its military muscle much closer to home. Building a string of controversial new facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea. Currently, the Spratly Islands cover only four square kilometres of actual land area, spread over a vast and strategically important trade route. We’ll be joined in a moment by two of Australia’s leading strategic thinkers, professors Hugh White and Professor Alan Dupont, but first this report from Margot O’Neill on what’s being called China’s “island factory”.
MARGOT O’NEILL, REPORTER: Here’s what the Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea looked like just two years ago. The pristine reef is part of the disputed Spratly Islands chain claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
Photos released by the Philippines Government showed China filling in the reef’s lagoon, effectively building a new island just in the last 12 to 18 months.
ALAN DUPONT, UNSW: It’s creating artificial islands all the way through the South China Sea, which is a very big sea, I might add, and it’s starting to militarise them. And these reefs and maritime features of course do not belong to China. They are disputed, even though China claims them.
MARGOT O’NEILL: And this is what probably comes next according to regional security experts.
ALAN DUPONT: The next stage, almost certainly based on what China has done elsewhere in the South China Sea, it will start to put in a runway, port facilities and a small garrison.
RORY MEDCALF, LOWY INSTITUTE: It’s a disturbing trend right really across the South China Sea, the way that China is expanding or building essentially artificial islands. Johnson Reef is – or indeed Johnson Island, I guess you’d call it these days now, is a key one to watch because it will give China a strong garrisoning and power projection.
MARGOT O’NEILL: Just two years ago, China had few military facilities south of Hainan Island. Now it’s carrying out extensive land reclamation in the Spratly Islands, each capable of holding military garrisons, according to experts who’ve seen the latest intelligence.
RORY MEDCALF: Well South China Sea is an enormously consequential region for Australian interests. It’s a vital lifeline for Australian export. It’s very clear that China wants to expert its authority, and over time, limit the ability of foreign forces, particularly the Americans, to operate in those waters.
MARGOT O’NEILL: The Johnson South Reef was the scene of a violent clash between China and Vietnam in 1988. Vietnam claims about 70 of its sailors were killed.
RORY MEDCALF: The biggest risk here is that China could provoke a clash, a miscalculation, if you like, in the South China Sea, that could cause wider regional conflict or something approaching a regional cold war and that would have obviously very direct implications for Australia’s security and economic interests and we have to intervene now to avoid that.
MARGOT O’NEILL: Other nations such as Vietnam and Malaysia have also militarised disputed territory, but none as extensively as China. Experts believe Australia should pro-actively sport South-East Asian nations coming together to resist China’s land grabs.
RORY MEDCALF: Australia, the United States, much of the region was focusing on the South China Sea a couple of years ago. The risk is of course that with other crises in the world, with Ukraine, with the Middle East, there’s a risk of taking our eye off the ball in the South China Sea. That’s a risk we can’t afford.