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Interview: Bonnie Glaser -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: The tension between China and the United States inched up a notch today. When a US surveillance plane flew over a series of man-made islands in the South China Sea, the Chinese Navy issued eight warnings for the Americans to leave.

CHINESE NAVY (US military video): Foreign military aircraft. This is Chinese Navy. You are approaching our Military Alert Zone. Leave immediately.

CHINESE NAVY: This is the Chinese Navy. This is the Chinese Navy. Please go away quickly.

US NAVY: I am a United States military aircraft conducting lawful military activities outside national airspace.

EMMA ALBERICI: The two sides see the situation very differently. Despite being thousands of kilometres away, China claims the Spratly Islands area as its own, territory also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.

The US doesn't recognise Beijing's claims and thinks China's increased activity in the region is dangerous.

ANTONY BLINKEN, US DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: This behaviour threatens to set a new precedent whereby larger nations are free to intimidate smaller ones. And that provokes tension, instability and can even lead to conflict.

EMMA ALBERICI: This is just the latest flare-up over territorial disputes in the region. China issued similar warnings last month to military aircraft from the Philippines. So where is this all leading? Bonnie Glaser is a senior advisor on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She's in Australia as a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute. Bonnie Glaser joined me from Canberra just a short time ago.

Bonnie Glaser, welcome to Lateline.

BONNIE GLASER, NON-RESIDENT FELLOW, THE LOWY INSTITUTE: Thanks for having me.

EMMA ALBERICI: Have China's actions breached the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea?

BONNIE GLASER: Well, that's a very complicated question. Land reclamation is not outlawed by the Convention on the Law of the Sea. But occupying a land feature that is inside a country's 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone is. And two of the places at least where China is conducting land reclamation is in the EEZ, as we say, of the Philippines.

EMMA ALBERICI: The Philippines have actually taken China on in the international legal framework. What's the likely outcome of that action?

BONNIE GLASER: Well the Philippines has taken China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague and it's a very clever case because it does not bring into play the issue of sovereignty. It is essentially about the maritime zones and the areas where China's occupying, and importantly, what is an expansive claim that China has. You look on maps, it looks like a dashed line, sometimes called the “Cow's Tongue”, and China sometimes appears to claim almost every drop of water in it, or at least to exercise jurisdiction over fishing and energy exploration that takes place in it. And so this case probably will be ruled on early next year. And I'm not an international lawyer, but what I hear from people who do know the law, there is a good possibility that the court will find that this dashed line claim is illegal and that China's occupation of at least some of these reefs within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone are also illegal. This would be legally binding, but there is no enforcement capability under the Permanent Court of the Arbitration.

EMMA ALBERICI: You wrote today that Chinese leaders believe that they can coerce their neighbours without paying a significant price. By all accounts, it's a fairly solid belief, isn't it?

BONNIE GLASER: Well, so far there has been a lot of coercion that the Chinese have been using. Occasionally we have seen pushback. For example, in May last year, when China deployed a massive oil rig within Vietnam's EEZ and the Vietnamese really did push back. They brought their fishing boats in and law enforcement boats. There was some ramming going on with the Chinese vessels, really quite dangerous. But the Chinese pulled out that rig one month earlier than they had originally intended. And so I think that there is the possibility to influence Chinese behaviour and that's what I think that all countries need to do: to try and give China positive incentives, but also some negative consequences, some cost to their behaviour, so that they contribute more positively and constructively to security in this region.

EMMA ALBERICI: On the issue of the B-1 bombers - by way of background for the viewers, the US Assistant Secretary of Defence David Shear - you'd certainly be aware, Bonnie Glaser - in testimony to a congressional hearing said the US plan to move the B-1 bombers to Australia as part of its response to China's construction program in the South China Sea. Tony Abbott said Mr Shear had misspoken and that there were no plans to send B-1 bombers to Australia. What do you make of that episode?

BONNIE GLASER: My guess is that there's a lot of consultation, many channels between the US and Australia about what we will do in the future. The US is not going to move any assets here without Australia's approval. This is something that we do as an alliance. And I take your Prime Minister at his word that probably Assistant Secretary David Shear misspoke.

EMMA ALBERICI: Is there a real possibility that China's actions in the South China Sea could lead to armed conflict in the region? And if so, whose side would Australia be on?

BONNIE GLASER: Well, I certainly can't speak for Australia. I think that it's highly unlikely that we will see a major military conflict in the South China Sea. It has ...

EMMA ALBERICI: What do you - sorry to interrupt you, but what are the categories of major versus minor military conflict?

BONNIE GLASER: There could be an accident, potentially between a few ships or aircraft, even more likely if they were flying in close proximity. This happened once in 2001 between the US and China, where we did have a collision with our aircraft and a Chinese pilot lost his life, and a US plane had to make an emergency landing in Hainan in the South China Sea. So something like that cannot be ruled out. But I think the US and China recognise that settling their differences through the use of force is not going to bode well for the region or for the broader bilateral relationship. In fact, the US and Chinese militaries are working quite hard to put in place some procedures for operational safety so that we will not have accidents at sea or in the air. We've made some good progress on that over the last year. Xi Jinping seems to be quite supportive of that conflict avoidance agenda. So, I'm not really worried about a shooting war. I'd be worried more about the potential for an accident that, yes, could escalate if not diffused quickly.

EMMA ALBERICI: Because of course the use of military assets by the US or indeed by Australia would be extremely provocative.

BONNIE GLASER: Well, the use of military assets to enforce international law, freedom of navigation, I think is not militarily provocative. The US sails in these waters. We have been conducting freedom-of-navigation patrols all around the world since the 1970s, so nothing new there. And many countries sail through these waters. Of course there's a great deal of merchant shipping that sails through the South China Sea, and I believe it's about 70 per cent of Australia's trade that sails through these waters as well. So we all have an interest in unimpeded commerce in these waters as well as freedom of navigation for military vessels and aircraft as well.

EMMA ALBERICI: Bonnie Glaser, we have to leave it there. Thank you very much for your time this evening.

BONNIE GLASER: Thank you.