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About the project

The International Security Program looks at strategic dynamics and security risks globally, with an emphasis on Australia's region of Indo-Pacific Asia. Its research spans strategic competition and the risks of conflict in Asia, security implications of the rise of China and India, maritime security, nuclear arms control, Australian defence policy and the changing character of conflict. The Program draws on a network of experts in Australia, Asia and globally, and is supported by diverse funding sources including grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. It convenes international policy dialogues such as the 2017 Australia-ROK Emerging Leaders International Security Forum and has a record of producing leading-edge, influential reports.

Latest publications

US Navy carries out third FONOP in South China Sea

The US Navy has carried out another freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. According to defence sources, it was conducted, on the morning of 10 May, by the USS William P. Lawrence, a guided missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.

Guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (Photo: US Navy)

The Reef is a high-tide feature occupied by China and extensively built up since 2013. It is also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

In keeping with the two previous US FONOPs in the South China Sea in October 2015 and January 2016, the US chose to exercise the right of innocent passage, without prior notification, transiting inside 12 nautical miles of the feature.

It is important to stress that no country, including China, has declared baselines or territorial seas within the Spratlys. However, Fiery Cross Reef, as a naturally drying feature prior to China’s construction efforts, would be legally entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea.

As with the previous South China Sea FONOPs the US has again made a point of challenging excessive maritime claims by multiple countries, in this case China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, based on these states’ requirements for prior permission or notification of transits through the territorial sea, a position that the US holds as contrary to international law. FONOPs are not designed to challenge territorial claims to land features, such as Fiery Cross Reef.

Fiery Cross is one of the largest complexes built by China in the Spratlys and can be considered a lynchpin facility, with a 3000 metre runway that is now operational and capable of handling any military aircraft in China’s inventory. Despite President Xi Jinping’s apparent pledge in Washington not to militarise the Spratlys, Fiery Cross has already been visited in recent weeks by China’s top-ranking general and last week hosted a visiting naval contingent led by a large Type 071 amphibious ship, and even a troupe of singers.

The US was reported to have cancelled a FONOP last month, as US-China tensions have shifted to Scarborough Shoal, an isolated high-tide feature to the north of the Spratlys and close to the Philippines, where there are fears that China intends to undertake another large-scale island construction for strategic reasons. The US approach on Scarborough Shoal has received praise in some quarters, for representing a more effective mix of deterrence and conflict management than it has exhibited previously.

However, the resort to a third freedom of navigation operation in the Spratlys is unlikely to stem internal criticism of the Obama Administration’s approach, including its preference for the least assertive form of surface FONOP.

Quick comment: Beijing's 'passive assertiveness' in the South China Sea

The Lowy Institute has published a major new report on China's behaviour in the South China Sea. 'Shifting Waters: China's New Passive Assertiveness Asian Maritime Security' finds that China has changed its tactics in recent times: there are fewer confrontations at sea with the constabulary and naval forces of other claimants, and more 'passive assertiveness' such as island-building.

Co-author Ashley Townshend says this is partly a good-news story, because it reduces the chances of violent conflict. But in this interview recorded yesterday, Ashley also says that although the tactics have changed, China's strategic goals have not:

Shifting waters: China’s new passive assertiveness in Asian maritime security

In this Report, Ashley Townshend and Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Professor Rory Medcalf examine China’s evolving maritime security conduct. They argue that China’s less confrontational but more strategically assertive behaviour has paradoxical implications for regional security, lowering the risks of unintended clashes but making it harder to prevent China from consolidating a new maritime status quo.

This Report is part of a wider research and outreach project on maritime security in Indo-Pacific Asia, supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Photo: Getty Images/DigitalGlobe

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