The Australian government never acknowledged that they conducted ‘freedom of navigation’ in the contested South China Sea, until now. The Australian defense ministry confirmed air patrols in defiance of Beijing only after a BBC journalist noticed the presence of an Australian surveillance aircraft in the region. BBC journalist Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was close to the disputed Mischief Reef on another plane when he heard the voice of an Australian pilot on radio.
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes released the audio and described the story on Tuesday. An Australian airman can be heard saying, “China navy, China navy. 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.” The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilot repeated the message several times, but didn’t receive a response from the Chinese.
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Canberra confirmed Tuesday that an RAAF P-3 Orion aircraft carried out patrols in the South China Sea air space between November 25 and December 4. Though Australia has been conducting such air patrols in the South China Sea for years under the Operation Gateway, the tempo has gone up since last year. China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea.
Australia taking sides in the South China Sea dispute
It is a clear and calculated signal to Beijing that Canberra does not recognize China’s artificial islands in the disputed waters. It comes as tensions between China and the US have intensified over Beijing’s growing ambition to unilaterally control the strategically important and oil-rich waters by bullying its neighbors. In October, the US Navy sailed a destroyer ship close to China’s artificial islands in a “freedom of navigation” exercise.
On Monday, the US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift warned of a potential arms race in the South China Sea. He urged all the involved nations, including China, to settle the disputes peacefully instead of using military force. After decades of peace and prosperity, “we may be seeing the leading edge of a return of might makes it right to the region,” warned Admiral Scott Swift.