Australia is leading “Freedom of Navigation” flights over the disputed South China Sea, the BBC has learned.
BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was on board a civilian flight from the Philippines as he investigated China’s artificial-island building in the region, when he intercepted radio communications revealing the Australian military was conducting freedom of navigation flights.
Wingfield-Hayes overheard a message detailing, “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.”
Australia’s Department of Defense confirmed to the BBC that it had sent a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft on a “routine maritime patrol” to maintain regional security and stability.
Wingfield-Hayes’s reporting got him a warning from the Chinese navy while he was on board the aircraft.
The U.S. has also been conducting freedom of navigation flights to uphold the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and to challenge Beijing’s claim over most of the South China Sea, a strategic and economically-vital waterway through which billions in ship borne goods pass through each year.
Recently, China has alarmed its regional neighbors and the U.S. by engaging in land reclamation to build artificial islands in the region including ones that are equipped with air strips capable of accommodating most military aircraft.
The U.S. has called on China to halt such operations. Last month, it sent B-52 bombers nearby China’s islands in the South China Sea as part of its Freedom of Navigation program, even though it has not formally ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Throughout 2013 and 2014, The U.S. conducted similar operations against China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – all of which claim territory in the South China Sea..