May 30th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

CLIMATE CHANGE: Solar inactivity points to further global cooling

EDITORIAL: Australia's biggest financial scam?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Next generation to pay for Swan Budget

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Fund infrastructure with a development bank

DEFENCE WHITE PAPER: Glaring flaw at heart of government defence thinking

ASIA: Will China "liberate" the South China Sea?

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: US auto industry meltdown highlights financial collapse

UNITED KINGDOM: Unrestrained greed caused banking crisis

HUMAN RIGHTS: A bill of rights will diminish our freedoms

ILLICIT DRUGS: Cannabis use linked to suicide, schizophrenia

EDUCATION: The Frankfurt School and the war on the West

OPINION: The forgotten factor: land prices

Bill of rights vs. common law (letter)

Beware of 'Plimer contrarianism' (letter)

CINEMA: Cold War metaphor encoded in vampire movie

BOOKS: THE HORNET'S STING: The Amazing Untold Story of WWII Spy Thomas Sneum, by Mark Ryan

BOOKS: HEROES: From Alexander the Great to Mae West, by Paul Johnson

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Will China "liberate" the South China Sea?

by Ian H. McDougall

News Weekly, May 30, 2009
China declares that the South China Sea is part of its territory. Ian H. McDougall reports.

Recent hostile actions by China to exclude other nations from international waters in the South China and Yellow seas indicate the real significance for Australia behind China's "peaceful rise".

In early May, two Chinese fishing vessels came "dangerously close" to a US military ship in the Yellow Sea off the coast of China, the fifth such incident in the past few months, American cable news channel CNN reported, citing two unnamed US officials.

The Chinese fishing vessels approached the USNS Victorious, a US military sealift command ship, in international waters in the Yellow Sea, which lies between China and North and South Korea.

The crew of the Victorious turned on fire hoses to keep the smaller vessels away, but did not spray them directly. The Victorious radioed for assistance to a larger Chinese fisheries service vessel nearby, but apart from shining a light on the smaller vessels, it did nothing. The harassment, described as "deliberate manoeuvres," continued for several hours.

"The USNS Victorious is an unarmed ocean surveillance ship operated by a civilian mariner crew working for Military Sealift Command. The mission is to conduct authorised undersea listening operations in international waters, according to the US Navy," CNN reported.

In early March, the Victorious was involved in another incident with a Chinese Bureau of Fisheries patrol vessel and also subjected to fly-bys by Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft. In the same month, the USNS Impeccable, another US ocean surveillance ship, was harassed by a Chinese frigate and a fly-by by maritime surveillance aircraft.

Two days later, five Chinese ships surrounded and harassed the Impeccable in the South China Sea. The United States protested to Beijing that these actions were "unprofessional".

These actions came soon after the US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, returned from a visit to China to discuss the safety of US and Chinese maritime operations.

After the Impeccable incidents, the US Navy provided armed warships to escort some USNS ships in the region, but an official protested, "It's international waters; we should not have to do that."

China claims that these waters are an economic zone over which it has sole jurisdiction. The South China Sea is the shortest route between the Indian and Pacific oceans and has some of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Much of Australia's trade is shipped thought the South China Sea.

China has warned Washington not to operate ships in these waters, which China claims as its exclusive zone. China also warned its neighbours to stay off disputed islands in the South China Sea, telling the United Nations it holds "indisputable sovereignty" over these seas.

"China possesses indisputable sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the South China Sea islands and their near waters," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in statement posted on the Foreign Ministry's website.

The spokesman said his government made a submission to the United Nations asserting that Beijing would not tolerate other countries claiming the islands. Apart from the islands' strategic significance astride Australia's maritime trade and communications routes, the surrounding waters are believed by some to be rich in oil and gas.

Just what sort of "fishing" China's fishing boats are pursuing in the South China and Yellow seas is open to conjecture. Recall the well-known Soviet "fishing trawlers" that formerly shadowed NATO exercises. What is certain - and the authorities have advertised the fact in Chinese media - is that that China is bolstering its "fisheries surveillance" activities in the South China Sea by using repurposed People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels. These ships are much larger than those previously tasked with in this role.

"China will continue to protect its maritime rights and interests based on its consistent position and stance," spokesman Ma said, adding that Beijing was open to negotiations on sea boundaries.

Taipei's China Post commented: "Ma's statement marked no change in China's general stance on the islands, including what Beijing calls the Nansha and Xisha islands, also known as the Spratly and Paracel islands." Taiwan, along with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, also has territorial claims to the South China Sea islands.

China says that the South China Sea is part of its territory, and so declares that all actions by other nations in the area, be they to claim sovereignty or to assert the right of free passage in international waters, are an interference in its internal affairs.

To interpret this, one has only to look at the recent "Serf Liberation Day" on March 28, which celebrated the considerate "liberation" of Tibet by the PLA on this day in 1959 from the "Dalai Clique". Others remember it as an uprising against Chinese domination.

Might the South China Sea islands also be "liberated" by Beijing at some later date? It's a question worth pondering.

- Ian H. McDougall

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