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THE pro­fes­sion­al­ism dis­played by China’s navy in some of the world’s most con­tested seas is mask­ing an un­der­ly­ing chal­lenge to the ex­ist­ing or­der in the East China Sea and South China Sea that must be re­sisted, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by an Aus­tralian se­cu­rity think tank.

“Bei­jing’s newly ac­quired taste for mar­itime ‘rules of the road’ is low­er­ing the risk of ac­ci­den­tal con­flict,” Ash­ley Town­shend and Rory Med­calf wrote in a re­port pub­lished on Fri­day by the Syd­ney-based Lowy In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional Pol­icy. “In turn­ing away from tac­ti­cal ag­gres­sion, Bei­jing has re­fo­cused on pas­sive as­sertive ac­tions to con­sol­i­date a new sta­tus quo in mar­itime Asia.”

China’s strat­egy is based around its is­land- build­ing pro­gram, which has cre­ated more than 3,000 acres ( 1,214 hectares) of land on seven fea­tures it oc­cu­pies in the Spratly Is­lands of the South China Sea. Though its ac­tions have sparked ten­sions with other claimants, in­clud­ing the Philip­pines and Viet­nam, and prompted the US to carry out naval tran­sits to de­fend free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the waters, China has still man­aged to ex­pand its mar­itime in­flu­ence.

“As it is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to com­pel China to roll back its out­posts, the cur­rent pol­icy im­per­a­tive—aside from de­fend­ing free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion—is to de­ter fur­ther mil­i­ta­riza­tion or the cre­ation of a new air- de­fense iden­ti­fi­ca­tion zone, par­tic­u­larly in re­la­tion to the Spratly Is­lands,” the au­thors wrote.

China de­clared an air- de­fense iden­ti­fi­ca­tion zone in Novem­ber 2013, over part of the East China Sea cov­er­ing is­lands con­tested with Japan, and said its mil­i­tary would take “de­fen­sive emer­gency mea­sures” if air­craft en­ter the area with­out re­port­ing flight plans or iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves. While China has rarely at­tempted to en­force the re­stric­tions, an­a­lysts spec­u­late that China may at­tempt to es­tab­lish a sim­i­lar zone above the South China Sea.

US Rear Adm. Mar­cus Hitch­cock this week un­der­lined one of the themes of the Lowy re­port, prais­ing the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Navy for abid­ing by a code set up for un­planned en­coun­ters at sea, “no mat­ter what their na­tions are go­ing through diplo­mat­i­cally.”

Scar­bor­ough Shoal

EVEN as China’s navy ad­heres to those rules of con­duct, US of­fi­cials are con­cerned that China may start cre­at­ing an is­land on Scar­bor­ough Shoal, which it seized from the Philip­pines in 2012. On April 19 the US sent six US Air Force planes into the vicin­ity of the shoal, which lies about 230 kilo­me­ters (143 miles) from the Philip­pines coast. An airstrip there would add to China’s ex­ist­ing net­work of run­ways and sur­veil­lance sites that Adm. Harry Har­ris, head of US Pa­cific Command, said last year “cre­ates a mech­a­nism

by which China would have de-facto con­trol over the South China Sea in any sce­nario short of war.” The au­thors dub Bei­jing’s cur­rent strat­egy as “pas­sive as­ser­tion,” where China uses the cover of the re­gion’s rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity to push ahead with is­land-build­ing, mil­i­ta­riza­tion and the ex­pan­sion of its naval and law- en­force­ment pa­trols to cre­ate new zones of mil­i­tary au­thor­ity.

Part of the strat­egy is to por­tray the US and its al­lies as the ag­gres­sors, the au­thors wrote. That tac­tic was dis­played on Thurs­day at the monthly news con­fer­ence of China’s Min­istry of De­fense. “It is the so- called free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions of the US that have plunged the sit­u­a­tion in the South China Sea into dis­or­der, un­der­mined re­gional sta­bil­ity and harmed the se­cu­rity in­ter­ests of lit­toral states,” Min­istry Spokesman Wu Qian said.

“China’s state­ment is the lat­est ex­am­ple of its pub­lic re­la­tions ef­forts to por­tray the US as Asia’s main mar­itime provo­ca­teur,” said Town­shend, a re­search fel­low at the United States Stud­ies Cen­tre at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney.

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