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A New Zealand frigate has joined with the UK’s Carrier Strike Group to traverse the contested South China Sea en route to a major international defence exercise.
The group is headed to Singapore to participate in a joint military exercise known as BersamaGold 21. However, the large military transit is also a show of force as China continues to make claims in the region and build up its military, raising tensions. International law does not support China’s claim.
Anna Powles,a senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University, says the naval transit is important because it upholds the international rule of law and ensures the ability to freely pass through the area.
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Powles adds, however, that our presence is “also important because New Zealand is heavily reliant on the international rules based order, multilateral system, and therefore New Zealand needs to contribute to this in a tangible practical way, which New Zealand has done by sending a frigate up there.”
China claims around 80 per cent of the region’s waters and the underlying seabed. But a number of other countries also have claims to the area – these are supported by international law.
China has refused to acknowledge a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruling that found in favour of the Philippines. Instead, it has continued to push its claims and has increased its military and civilian presence in the area.
The commissioning of the Navy’s newest ship HMNZS Aotearoa at Devonport Naval Base, Auckland. (Video published Jul 2020)
The New Zealand Government has raised concerns about tensions in the South China Sea and China’s treatment of its neighbours. And in August, it submitted a statement to the United Nations setting out its legal position on the South China Sea disputes and the importance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It also noted that “historic rights” have no basis in international law. China’s claim is partly based on “historic rights.”
The South China Sea is important as a trade route. One-third of all international trade passes through these waters, or around $3.4 trillion worth, estimates the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
It is also a popular fishing area, and the seabed is thought to house both oil and natural gas reserves. If China claims the region it would not only be able to access the resources, but could restrict trade – including goods from New Zealand – and movement through it.
As a result, countries – particularly the US – send naval ships up to pass through the ocean conducting what are known as Freedom of Navigation passage.
The Defence Force has previously said naval ships have passed through the region on a number of occasions including in 2017 when HMNZS Te Kaha and HMNZS Endeavour made calls in a number of South East Asian ports and then in 2018 the HMNZS Te Mana transited through the Spratly Islands.
The Defence Force said in a statement, the country’s commitment to regional security has been demonstrated for decades through its presence in the South East Asia region.
Deployments exercise freedom of navigation and overflight, the statement said.
Bersama Gold 21, which the naval group is headed to, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) and will involve Australia, United Kingdom, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand.
In recent days the UK’s Carrier Strike Group (CSG) has been training with ships from Japan, Netherlands, Canada, and the United States, including the US aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan.