By David Wroe – The Sydney Morning Herald
Australian air force patrols flying over the South China Sea are now being routinely challenged by the Chinese military in a sign of the growing stranglehold Beijing has over the strategically vital waters.
The Chief of the Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, said on Wednesday that Australian surveillance patrol flights over the regional flashpoint had increased “slightly” and the RAAF would continue doing so as was its right under international law.
In a wide-ranging interview, Air Marshal Davies also said the RAAF would be stretched if asked to carry out sustained bombing raids in Libya on top of the campaign in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State terror group.
Those remarks came after Washington flagged the need to tackle the Islamic State’s growing presence in Libya and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she would “listen” to discussions about a possible greater coalition effort in the oil-rich, north African country. But Ms Bishop reiterated that Australia was already making a significant contribution to the fight against Islamic State and it was up to other countries to do more.
On the South China Sea, Air Marshal Davies said island-building by Beijing meant the People’s Liberation Army had a much greater presence in the area which was being felt by Australian air craft patrolling the area under the long-running Operation Gateway.
“Because the Chinese have done the reclamation, there is a greater Chinese presence,” he said.
“What we’re now finding is that there are of course multiple outposts now that are manned, so wherever we go on our normal Gateway patrol, we now find that there is an increasing number of locations where the challenge would occur.”
The challenges would come in the form of radio broadcasts warning the Australian planes that they were close to Chinese territory and should move away. He stressed this was normal practice by many countries and said the nature of the challenges had not escalated.
But he said “nearly all” flight were now challenged – something that had not happened in the past.
The increase underscores the fact that China is now actively trying to enforce its claims over wide sections of the vital waters – a source of growing concern to Australian and US defence planners as well as other countries in the region.
China is locked in disputes with several other countries over tiny islands throughout the South China Sea and has sought to buttress its claims by building new islands on which it has installed military-grade runways and docking facilities.
Air Marshal Davies said there had been a “slight increase” in patrols over the South China Sea but only because there had been more to surveil there than the Indian Ocean, where Gateway also operates.
Fairfax Media understands however there has been a deliberate increase to send a signal to China.