China has moved weaponry onto artificial islands that it is building in contested areas of the South China Sea, adding to the risks of a confrontation with the United States and its regional security partners including Australia.
Australian officials are concerned that China could also introduce long-range radars, anti-aircraft guns and regular surveillance flights that will enable it to project military power across a maritime expanse which includes some of Australia’s busiest trading lanes.
Fairfax understands that these concerns are prompting discussions in senior military circles that could lead to Australian naval officers and air force pilots embarking on “freedom of navigation” missions to demonstrate that Canberra does not accept Beijing’s hardening claims.
The options, which include fly-throughs, sail-throughs and exercises involving various regional partners, are expected to crystallise after officials deliver a personal briefing to Prime Minister Tony Abbott during the next fortnight.
Already, diplomats have dropped “talking points” about Australia not taking sides in the multi-layered territorial contest, which Chinese officials have used as evidence of Australian support.
More substantially, Australia’s intelligence agencies are upgrading the strategic threat assessments which will inform the Abbott Government’s first Defence White Paper, according to Government sources.