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Should Australia Do More on the South China Sea?

10 Mar 2016
AIIA Fellows responding to the question of the week


Question: Should Australia do more on the South China Sea?

Richard Woolcott FAIIA 
No. China, as a major trading nation, now has the same rights as the US to protect its maritime approaches to its mainland. Australia should avoid provocative statements and actions at sea or in the air.When we talk about the need to support “a rules-based global order”, we overlook the fact that this order was framed mainly by the US after World War II.The world has changed greatly over the last 50 years and rising countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Russia and Brazil will want to be involved in reshaping an updated international order. We should be involved in cooperative discussions with the US, the aforementioned five states and all countries in the Asian region.The Australian Government and the ALP – and the factions in both major parties – need to acknowledge this or Australia will be left behind.Australia needs to remember that there are two sides to this issue. China has legitimate rights in the South China Sea, as do other regional powers. Let us work for a just and even-handed solution and not deal with China on the automatic assumption that it is infringing our rights.
John McCarthy AO FAIIA

A tough question and an “on balance” answer.

The first question is whether Australia has a major interest in what happens in the South China Sea. Yes.

We do not have the same direct involvement as most members of ASEAN because we are not claimants and not in, or on the fringe of, the contested areas. But Freedom of Navigation is a crucial principle for a maritime nation such as Australia with particular security and economic interests in the disputed areas (as of course have others, not least China itself).

While China might eventually be the most powerful country in the region, that power should be balanced by a multipolar structure in which the other poles, particularly the United States, India and Japan, provide the main counterpoises. This means that the other poles have to push back when Chinese behaviour is egregiously bad.

China can justifiably assert that its growing global importance merits greater deference than it has been accorded in the past. However its bellicosity and lack of respect for its neighbours thus far, if not contested, could lead to an acceleration of destabilising Chinese activity, which is clearly not in Australia’s interest.

In short, to lapse into the parlance of the day, we do have skin in the game and/or a dog in the fight. It is not necessarily of the essence that others might have more skin or more dogs.

This is why Australia has to be counted, not because it needs to pay alliance dues where the ledger is in any event in its favour. American public assertions about what they want of Australia are unhelpful.

What then should we should do?

We have to do more than espouse diplomacy. To do this is obvious even if it is not doing much good. We need visibly to assert Australian interests in the areas in question. This will involve at some stage transiting those areas where we claim a right of passage. We should do so subject to certain constraints:

  • In order to limit the perception of belligerence (and help limit the regional view of Australia’s surrogate status), the transiting vessel/aircraft should not be part of an American flotilla/squadron. That said, the United States should be aware of what we are doing and be prepared for adverse contingencies.
  • To the degree possible the transit should be presented as part of a normal necessary naval/aerial manoeuvre consistent with those we have made in the past and not uniquely in terms of challenging the Chinese. The presentational emphasis should be on exercising our rights to behave normally in accordance with law.

None of this is low risk. What happens if an aircraft is shot down, or a vessel rammed?

Moreover the fact that we will be acting in accordance with American wishes even if it is genuinely our decision to do so, will deepen the regional perception of our status as a satrap.

But in the end we cannot bury our heads in the sand about China either because we fear the economic consequences or because we wish to be seen to be independent of the United States. We should lose the habit of rolling over for the United States, but not adopt that of doing so for China.

Robert O’Neill FAIIA
Australia needs to remember that there are two sides to this issue. China has legitimate rights in the South China Sea, as do other regional powers. Let us work for a just and even-handed solution and not deal with China on the automatic assumption that it is infringing our rights.
James Cotton FAIIA 


Those who assert that Australia should adopt a proactive policy in the South China Sea generally claim that to do so is to defend or advance the rule of law. This view is defective.First, Australian naval and air units would hardly be able to make any substantive appearance in that theatre in the absence of manifestations of United States power and interest. In the absence of that US role, the South China Sea would be what its name implies. Though Washington has been critical of Chinese policy in the South China Sea particularly because it infringes upon the rules set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the US has actively refrained from adhering to that Convention. The US Senate – which alone possesses the constitutional authority – has positively avoided resolving to ratify the Convention. While the US executive has stated its acceptance of UNCLOS, successive Secretaries of State – notably Hillary Clinton – have also been known to defend the sanctity of freedom of navigation in ‘international waters’, despite this concept being quite inconsistent with the character of UNCLOS.Moreover, other claimants have also engaged in land reclamation and the building of bases. This is a practice that in the case of Taiwan has been of very long-standing and goes back to the days when the United States had a formal security arrangement with the “Republic of China” (the remnants of which are still in existence via the Taiwan Relations Act). Washington has not been similarly critical of these activities, which suggests that the current US interest in international rules reflects additional motives.The other claimants to structures in the South China Sea – setting aside Taiwan – are all ASEAN states. If those states were all in agreement as to the scope of their respective claims, such unanimity would be a factor which should be taken extremely seriously by Australian policy makers. Relations with the ASEAN countries are of major importance, as the 2016 Defence White Paper attests. However, this is far from the case. The ASEAN countries assert competing claims and have even engaged in conflict and rivalry regarding those claims.If Australia is to line up with other powers defending the applicability of UNCLOS, the United States and the ASEAN states are not – in the circumstances described – credible partners, especially in light of the attendant risks.If the United States was an adherent to UNCLOS, and if the ASEAN states had adopted a consistent and unified position on the South China Sea, then the risks entailed in a pro-active Australian policy might be offset by the strong message it would help to send regarding the rule of law. In the absence of these two conditions, the risks attached to prominent Australian action are too great. The US may withdraw its interest from the theatre; if Trump becomes President this is not an idle possibility. One or other of the ASEAN states may yet be induced to come to a separate arrangement with Beijing; Manila’s track record on this possible outcome is not encouraging. If Australia had committed in the meantime to some form of assertive or even aggressive conduct it might end up having to pay a high price. And all for a theatre that is not part of Australia’s primary and essential sphere of interest which remains the Northern approaches, a point again made in the 2016 Defence White Paper.A longer historical view should be taken to this issue. A favourite tactic of great powers is to create ‘facts on the ground’ and then generate a friendly system of rules to give those facts legitimation. In 1945 the United States was determined to turn the North Pacific into an American lake in order to provide the security buffer that was lacking in 1941. All the islands from the Hawaiian chain to Japan were placed under US control through a United Nations mandate established in 1947. This mandate, however, possessed unique features. Instead of the US administrations (in practice, the US Navy) being answerable for their conduct under the regular mechanisms of the UN supervision of mandates as set out in Chapter XII of the UN Charter, the Caroline Islands, the Marianas, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau were to be classed as “strategic trust territories” where the mandatory power could maintain security facilities and could also exclude any other parties deemed threats to the security of the mandatory. This special class of mandates was supervised directly by the UN Security Council where, of course, the US possessed a veto. These islands have become part of the US security system ever since (including the Ryukyu Islands, which were returned to Japanese administration in 1972). The Chinese seem currently to be taking a leaf from the United States’ book, though the size of the stretch of sea in question is modest by comparison.
Garry Woodard FAIIA
No. The Prime Minister’s statement in regards to the Middle East that this is not the time for gestures or machismo applies in spades to what we do in the South China Sea. Australia should act prudently and, though some will see this as a contradiction, transparently and after full parliamentary and public debate.Australia’s relative propinquity gives us an interest in the outcome of the territorial disputes between countries in the South China Sea, but will our interest in seeing a peaceful resolution be helped or harmed by introducing an Australian naval presence?As Australia already has a naval presence in the North China Sea, and northwest Cape supports intelligence collection there, are we not bound to see the China Sea as a strategic whole?Is this not the strategic perception of the US Seventh Fleet? Sir Arthur Tange wrote from close observation of ‘the US Navy’s global view and the nuisance they found in other people’s sovereignty’.If we put ourselves in China’s shoes would we not have the same strategic perception? Do we understand China’s thinking? What if the most recently reported militarisation of Woody Island is defensive, to improve intelligence gathering against a perceived threat, rather like the extensions built northward from the Great Wall to get better forewarning of the threat from the Mongols?If the strategic perception should be of the China Sea as a whole, the core problem is China’s unfinished reunification. Nobody who heard Deng Xiaoping on the subject could doubt the emotional pull of seeing Taiwan rejoin the motherland, even if in accordance with Mao’s timetable of 100 years.Australia, unlike greater powers, avoided involvement in the Chinese civil war. As Michael Fogarty described in a recent book review in Australian Outlook, had it not been for the skill of Australian diplomats it might have been an Australian warship instead of HMS Amethyst which was fired on in the Yangtze incident. The Chifley Government in 1949, unlike New Zealand, refused to send a warship to Hong Kong when the Chinese Communists took power on the mainland. Under Menzies, numerous attempts by the Americans to get Australia to share its residual responsibilities from involvement in the Chinese civil war for the security of Taiwan were deflected.Menzies went to Washington in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Eisenhower that Taiwan should give up the offshore islands. In 1964 Menzies involved himself in de-escalating a crisis with Indonesia precipitated by the British sending a nuclear-armed carrier task force through the Sunda Straits: diplomatic good sense to precedence over asserting rights of innocent passage. Menzies had the confidence and stature to give Eisenhower a lecture on the danger of governments taking action which risked war without having public opinion behind them. That is not a long bow to draw in the broad context of addressing the current question. As Churchill said, and Hugh White is arguing, ‘better jaw jaw than war war’.
JamesIngramAO James Ingram FAIIAA casual glance at a map of East and Southeast Asia is sufficient to show how great the economic and strategic importance of the South China Sea is to China. Given US naval predominance in the region, its related alliances and its tacit policy of containment of China, the latter is clearly seeking to compensate for its strategic weakness by establishing a capacity to protect, militarily and otherwise, its vital interests in the South China Sea.Since the 19th Century the United States has acted to ensure its permanent dominance of the Caribbean, a similarly enclosed sea, which it sees as vital to its security. It has not hesitated to intervene many times, militarily and otherwise, against many states bordering the Caribbean, including invasions of Cuba, Grenada and Panama. The United States, consonant with its “exceptionalist” view of its great power strategic interests, is not itself a party to the Law of the Sea Convention.By tying itself ever closer to the United States and its strategic policy vis a vis China – as seen in the 2016 Defence White Paper – Australia lacks credibility as an honest broker in diplomatic efforts to resolve competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Unlikely though its adoption may be, the best policy for Australia is to say or do no more than it already has.
Rawdon Dalrymple AO FAIIA
I’m in the unusual position of being at a loss as to what to think about this. That is partly because I don’t know enough about Chinese intentions or indeed about our own defence planning. I have no difficulty accepting what, for instance, Greg Clark said in his address to AIIA NSW about China’s need to establish its properly recognised place in the region. And I understand that this inevitably involves pressing up against other interests. But the speed, unilateral pushiness and disregard for the long-established interests of other smaller regional countries involved in the South China Sea disputes is disturbing.As to Australia’s capacity, it appears to be at a low ebb. It will be a while before Australia can project any useful power in defence of its interests to the north and out into the seas beyond – at a guess at least 15 years. In the meantime our only weapon is probably diplomacy and that does not seem to have much influence on the Communist Party of China. We can seek to join other relatively weak regional countries in diplomatic efforts to urge Chinese restraint and consultation.Australia will continue to be dependent on the United States’ presence in the region. The present administration in Washington has clearly been prepared to make room for China and to recognise it as having rights in the region that have not been exercised for centuries. But it has not found a good balance in its treatment of China either on trade issues and the like or on defence/strategic issues.


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