Australia’s Careful Dance in the South China Sea

Commentary | June 10, 2016

Writing for The Diplomat, Greg Austin, a professorial fellow for the EastWest Institute, analyzes Australia's stance on the United States' interactions with East Asian maritime disputes.

Since at least December 2012, China, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and the United States have contributed in different ways to the polarization of geopolitical interests around maritime security in East Asia. Regardless of how we might judge which country is most responsible for the recent decline in regional trust beginning almost four years ago, the court of international public opinion is now asking many more questions of China than of the other states.

China’s bold moves to build military-­grade airfields on artificial islands in the middle of what most countries think of as open ocean and far from its mainland territory has shocked the entire world. As a long­term analyst of China’s maritime frontier and the country’s strategic policies across the board, I was definitely also surprised by the scale and scope of the island-­building.

Yet, unlike most observers, I can understand why China did it. Its airfield building is only a bigger and better version of what Vietnam and the Philippines had previously undertaken in the long-­disputed area, a fact acknowledged by the Pentagon. I sympathize with those in China who see their country’s actions as defensible and who cannot understand the damage the island-­building has done to the country’s international reputation.

But the overriding geopolitical reality is that China’s novel form of maritime rights protection has smashed a very big dent into the pre­existing pattern of trust and goodwill that most of China’s regional partners were showing. Both it and the United States now see themselves as locked in a newly militarized competition for strategic influence in maritime East Asia. While both countries are somewhat confused about the rules of the competition, both are now staking a lot more than they previously had on the competition for the hearts and minds of third parties beyond direct stakeholders (rival claimants) in the disputes with China. Non-­claimants like Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, and Australia, are the main targets for these efforts.

For the United States, this is a geopolitical gambit in a distant region that involves the interests of key allies, but for which successive administrations had made clear they would not spill American blood. For China, the newly militarized competition is very different. It is existential, visceral, and cuts to the very core of the historical pivot point at which the Chinese Communist Party leaders believe they have arrived.

There is little comprehension outside China that its biggest strategic concerns on the maritime frontier relate not to disputes in the central reaches of the South China Sea, but rather to the much larger geopolitical project with the aim of the successful integration of Hong Kong and Taiwan (both lying on the northern edge of the South China Sea) into a unified China. Everything China does with regard to its maritime disputes is informed by the country’s concept of sovereignty and its plans for the peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

Thus, for many reasons, there is a gulf in perception between the two major powers about the heightened maritime competition between them.

As each new escalation pushes up the heat of political rhetoric, the most senior leaders of the two countries have put pressure on Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and Australia to re­evaluate their geopolitical alignment on maritime security issues.

None of the target countries see the issue in the stark terms with which China and the United States portray it. These regional neighbors are genuinely concerned about renewed China­-U.S. tensions but continue to believe, perhaps wrongly, that the military tension can be contained. For this reason, they also believe that the putative choice (either siding with China’s view or that of the United States) is not one that they will be forced to make any time soon. These key regional actors (Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and Australia) simply reject outright the notion that China has created a new “Great Wall of Sand” on the maritime frontier that somehow forces them to choose one camp or another. For example, South Korea even resumed talks with China in April 2016 on delimitation of their overlapping maritime resource zones.

Nevertheless, the political loyalty of these key states to one side or the other in a deepening geopolitical confrontation between the United States and China is now a question being posed around the Western Pacific.

Australia as a Test Case

If you had polled the United States Congress in 2005, they would have voted Australia to be America’s most loyal ally. This was the year that American legislators created a unique category of work visa available only for the Aussies, a major U.S. ally in the Pacific War from 1941­1945, and their only ally in every major war involving the United States since that time. A measure for the unique E­3 visa category was passed, and signed into law by George W. Bush, as part of a package of supplemental provisions for the war on terror.

Barack Obama is the latest U.S. president to be a beneficiary of Australian strategic trust and loyalty. He scored early by gaining Canberra’s commitment to support the “pivot,” now called the “rebalance.” The policy foreshadowed a shift, beginning in earnest in 2011, of strategic and military attention by the world superpower to the Western Pacific. Many viewed this as aimed at constraining the rise of China’s political influence. In November that year, Obama visited Indonesia and Australia to raise the stakes in a renewed competition for regional pre­eminence between the two great powers. At the time, Australia was prepared to identify politically with the “pivot” by agreeing very quickly to a rotation of several hundred U.S marines into the port city of Darwin for training. (At the time, the number of marines was planned to increase to a modest 2,500 by 2017.)

We should note though, as then-­Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard pointed out in 2013, that the United States never left East Asia. And as Tom Christensen has observed, a number of the military measures announced as part of the pivot were in the plans before Obama took office. Thus in the first two years of its life, the “rebalance” policy was rather unexceptional and presented few challenges to U.S. allies in the region such as Australia and South Korea, or to close partners like Singapore. They felt entirely comfortable remaining close in strategic policy to the United States while simultaneously deepening economic relations with China. They saw little need to question the premises of the pivot.

Australia Betwixt and Between

In April 2016, when Australia’s present prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, visited China, Australian newspapers widely reported that China had warned Australia to be careful about siding with the United States in the emerging maritime confrontation. Details on official statements to that effect were not forthcoming but most media outlets relied on an article in China Daily on April 14 warning Australia to be careful in its positions on the South China Sea or risk losing its access to Chinese investment. The article carried the sub­heading: “Canberra must choose between economic interests, toeing US line.”

According to one of Australia’s most astute defense policy specialists and scholars, Hugh White, the situation we now face in the South China Sea “is forcing Australia to choose about the future of U.S. maritime primacy” in the Western Pacific. Interviewed for this article, White sketched an intensifying trend of political competition between China and the United States for Australian allegiance beginning as far back as 2003. He pointed to the rather bizarre coincidence on consecutive days that year (October 23 and 24) of the presidents of the two countries addressing the joint House of Parliament. On that occasion, President Hu of China was the first non-­American head of state or government leader (not counting the Queen of Australia) invited to address a joint sitting. There had only been two such addresses by a foreign head of state (both Americans) in the previous 102 years of the history of the Australian Commonwealth parliament.

Eleven years later, in 2014, after the leaders of Indonesia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, as well as Barack Obama, had been so invited, China’s new president, Xi Jinping, was back on that most symbolic of ceremonial stages in this theater of trilateral strategic drama. As if in response, through 2015 and 2016, the United States undertook its most intensive campaign ever of senior military visits to Australia calling for solidarity and joint action on any joint military endeavor. The subject was the need to stand up to China in the South China Sea.

Diplomatic Alignment

On paper and in principle, the positions of Australia and the United States on South China Sea issues are very close.

Australia, like the United States, takes no position on the territorial claims of the parties to the Spratly and Paracel Islands, or Scarborough Shoal. The two countries regularly assert that disputes of such kind, as well as the ensuing disputes over maritime resource boundaries, must be resolved peacefully. Both governments, like most states, believe that international law provides for innocent passage of warships in another country’s territorial sea without prior notice. In support of this view, the navies and air forces of the two countries exercise freedom of navigation rights in accordance with international law both for ship transits and aircraft overflights. Both governments have called on all parties to avoid further militarization of the disputes. The two governments have manifested increasing concern since the escalation of maritime tensions first in 2012-­2013 in the East China Sea and then again in 2014 and since in the South China Sea.

In private and public, senior officials of the two defense organizations make it fairly plain that they see China as the main provocateur, based in part on its efforts to assert claims to territorial and maritime jurisdiction, but in part premised on their belief that China has the ambition of becoming a regional hegemon. Officially and in private, leaders of the two countries paint China as a potential threat to merchant shipping simply by dint of its more militarized actions in disputed areas and its overall naval modernization (often labeled by these leaders as “naval expansion”).

Australia and the United States, in common with a large number of other states, see an additional cause for concern in China’s determination to reject the findings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the case brought by the Philippines against China. Even though China may be within its rights not to be bound by the case, based on its reservations to the Law of the Sea Convention provisions on arbitral proceedings, Australia and the United States feel that the case is an opportunity for China to rebuild strategic trust and remove ambiguity about its maritime claims. This concern has given rise to a new element in diplomatic rhetoric toward the South China Sea about the need to abide by a “rules-­based international order.” I do not share the Australian and U.S. concern on this point, but in practical diplomatic terms, China is passing up an excellent opportunity to rebuild trust.

Behind the Diplomacy

The close alignment on broad principles for dealing with the South China Sea is only to be expected given that Australia and the United States share common political values on, and interests in, regional security, especially in the maritime domain. The two countries also attach a very high political value to the alliance and solidarity. They consult closely on all major security issues, including in an annual 2+2 format (secretaries of defense and foreign affairs of each side).

Australia is not a subservient and unquestioning ally of the United States. It operates a mature foreign policy based on its national interests and political values. One recent example among several of this maturity and independence is its special relationship with Singapore. This includes relaxed visa arrangements, the regular presence of Singaporean military personnel in Australia for training, and a relationship akin to that between Australia and New Zealand. The terms of the Singapore/Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership were finalized only in May 2016. We do need to see Australia’s alignment with the United States on South China Sea issues as a considered position, not blind followership.

A closer look at the diplomatic practice and political interests of Australia begins to expose some areas of divergence from U.S. positions.

In 2015, Obama publicly challenged the Australian prime minister over Canberra’s decision to lease two wharves in Darwin port to a Chinese company for 99 years. Obama felt that Australia should have discussed this first with his government, implying that U.S. security interests were involved. Obama also implied that Australia had kept the negotiations on the port secret. In reply, Turnbull rather ebulliently dismissed the assertion as groundless: “The fact that Chinese investors were interested in investing in infrastructure in Australia is ... hardly a secret.” He suggested that U.S. embassy staff should have read the newspapers. The rebuke by Obama followed two months of “emergency” negotiations between officials of the two countries about the Australian decision.

Australia also takes a more subdued approach to exercising freedom of navigation rights than the United States. The latter has a dedicated “FONOPs” program: deployments made specifically and conspicuously for the purpose of asserting the right. In contrast, Australia relies on a practice of using the opportunities created by normal operations for other purposes to pass through the territorial sea as a direct manifestation of the right of innocent passage.

Underpinning these differences, the sentiment among strategic specialists in Australia is, with notable exceptions, simply not as inflamed as it is in China or the United States. For example, two prominent and highly respected analysts who are both retired senior naval officers, James Goldrick and Sam Bateman, have challenged U.S. and Australian characterizations of the implied Chinese threat to shipping in the South China Sea.

White believes that in the most likely scenarios for a crisis in the Western Pacific involving China's maritime interests, the United States will not spill blood. “The Americans would only consider going that far if there were a direct attack on Japan's main islands,” White said. “I doubt they would even go that far in the event of a direct attack on Taiwan, and the Chinese probably know that,” he added.

White also suggested that the United States appears to have raised the ante on the maritime disputes in a way that leaves it nowhere to go: “When the United States backs down on the South China Sea confrontation, as it must eventually, then Australia’s choices about the future of American military primacy in the Western Pacific may have been settled for it.”

I can agree with White’s characterizations of the geopolitical dynamics. There may be more room, however, than he has allowed for pragmatism to come into play before any of the parties reaches the crisis point that he has foreshadowed. It will take creative and robust diplomacy by Australia and other U.S. partner countries in the region (such as Singapore and South Korea) to avoid that crisis point. The wild card, or in one case the joker, remains the political cycle as it unfolds in the key protagonists: the United States, China, Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines.

Greg Austin is a Professorial Fellow with the EastWest Institute in New York and a Professor at the Australian Centre for Cyber Security at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

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