Christopher Pyne, a left-leaning Liberal who represents the Adelaide seat of Sturt in federal politics, announced in a public statement he will visit Japan, China, and Singapore from Jan. 22 to 28.
Although the official statement did not say he would specifically address China’s aggressive expansion in the South China Sea, Pyne was quick to slam any intimidation by the Chinese navy of U.S. navy vessels after his appointment as defence minister on Aug. 28, 2018.
“We would view any use of intimidation or aggressive tactics as destabilising and potentially dangerous,” Pyne said in a statement to media after a near miss incident between Chinese and U.S. warships in the South China Sea. “Australia has consistently expressed concern over ongoing militarisation of the South China Sea, and we continue to urge all claimants to refrain from unilateral actions that would increase tension in the region.”
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, recent satellite imagery shows a new structure on Bombay Reef complete with a radome and solar panels.
The reef is next to major shipping lanes that run between the Paracels and Spratly Islands to the south, making it an attractive location for a sensor array to extend Chinese radar or signals surveillance of the shipping lane.
The U.S.-based thinktank said in a published statement on Nov. 20 that these developments are significant due to the reef’s strategic location, and could quickly be replicated in other parts of the South China Sea.
Pyne confirmed that the Australian government views the region as international waters where ships have the right to freedom of navigation.
“We will always be up front with China about their activities in the South China Sea,” Pyne told Fairfax Media on Oct. 3, 2018. “We maintain the right under international law to navigate through the South China Sea and we do so on a routine basis.”
Pyne has also made it a top priority to maintain Australia’s military presence in the region.
To this end, the Morrison government has increased total defence spending from 1.9 percent to 2 percent of the national gross domestic product in the 2020-21 period.
“This will show the world Australia is not an ‘international bludger,'” Pyne told Fairfax. “The capability build-up is a critical factor in being a serious country in terms of defence and foreign affairs.”
Pyne believes South East Asian nations will also boost defence spending as the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis finally subside.
“That will mean they will gain more technological capability, which we would not dissuade them from doing because we welcome all our friends and allies across Asia investing in [defence] capability,” he said.
China has been increasing its military expenditure over the last decade—spending more than tripled between 2007 and 2017, reaching over $228 billion, according to SIPRI. For 2018, China proposed another 8 percent hike.
“They’ve invested in platforms and technology capability across the navy, the air force, and surveillance and reconnaissance,” Pyne said. “While that is a matter for China of course, we are quite aware of the need for us to maintain our technological edge.”
Doug Wise, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and former CIA paramilitary and operations officer, said in January 2018 that aside from building and militarizing artificial islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, China has been developing a hypersonic missile of its own capable of six times the speed of sound.
“You want to talk about an existential threat? How about China’s hypersonic glide missile, which … could take out an aircraft carrier before you could even blink?” Wise said, according to The New Yorker. “If the entire Pacific Fleet was at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, that would pose an existential threat.”
Warning that, in his view, military tension could escalate further between the United States and China, Pyne said it was important for Australia to it remains the “security partner of choice” for Pacific Islands nations as China’s influence in the region has increased.
Pyne’s agenda in Japan is widely expected to be along these lines. He will meet with Japanese Minister for Defense Takeshi Iwaya, and officials from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the country’s Ministry of Defense to discuss future opportunities for Australia and Japan to work together to contribute to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.
Pyne will then travel to China where he will meet with Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe and other senior Chinese officials to discuss regional security and bilateral issues.
Finally, he will visit Singapore and meet with the country’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and its minister for defence, Dr. Ng Eng Hen.
Additional reporting by Epoch Times reporter Petr Svab.