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China-Australia ties

Why Australia should refrain from challenging China with gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea

Mark J. Valencia says Australia, caught between China and the US, is flip-flopping on freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. However, threatening China’s territorial claims would be counterproductive

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 5:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 7:02pm

Analysts’ eyes have been focused on the recent visit of the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to Da Nang, Vietnam. This first visit of a US carrier to Vietnam since 1975 sent a warning to China regarding its “militarisation” of features in the South China Sea. Now, waiting in the wings are possible freedom of navigation operations by the United Kingdom and Australia.

From a American strategic perspective, this would be an ideal time for such operations, with the Vinson able to provide back-up if trouble ensued. Indeed, this would give the impression that the US has successfully rallied its allies vis-à-vis China.

However, it appears that Australia may have stepped back from the brink of a bottomless pit in its relations with China. While Australia certainly supports freedom of navigation, it may be thinking better of undertaking a freedom of navigation operation specifically challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea. It was clearly contemplating mimicking or even joining the US in its challenges to China’s sovereignty over certain low-tide features or its requirement of prior permission for warships to enter its territorial seas. To refrain from doing so would enhance its relations with China, but strain those with the US.

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The US has declared China a “revisionist power” that wants to change the US-led “international order”. It has also declared China a “strategic competitor”, sending a clear message to China as well as to US allies like Australia.

Indeed, its 2018 National Defence Strategy calls for expanding and transforming Washington’s network of alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific in to a “networked security architecture”. So US pressure on Australia to do more to support the US strategy to contain China has been mounting.

An Australian move targeting China’s claims would send an unmistakable political signal that Australia is siding with the US

Australia used similar rhetoric in its 2017 white paper on foreign policy. It characterises the South China Sea disputes as “a major fault line in the regional order”. The white paper also proclaims Australia’s intention to “conduct cooperative activities with other countries consistent with international law”. Julie Bishop, Australia’s minister of foreign affairs, explained that “what we are seeking to do is to balance against bad behaviour. The key is a rules-based order”. Meanwhile, its Chief of Navy Tim Barret called for concrete action against China’s navy in the South China Sea. This gave the impression that Australia was seriously considering joining US freedom of navigation operations or undertaking its own.

Such an Australian move targeting China’s claims would send an unmistakable political signal that Australia is siding with the US to uphold the existing, largely Western-built “international order”. But it could well be the straw that breaks the back of Australia-China relations and sends them into a tailspin. According to Michael Green, a former security adviser to the US government: “In a strategic sense, it [an Australian freedom of navigation operation]would be a demonstration of willpower and solidarity.” Indeed, that is exactly how China is likely to see it.

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China has begun to apply pressure on Australia not to do so. According to The Australian, China deferred a senior Australian official’s visit to Beijing last year, was stalling ministerial visits and was putting off a range of lower-level exchanges. A scathing editorial in China’s leadership-influenced Global Times reminded Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that just last December, he said that he didn’t see “any hostile intent from China” and that he did not see China as a threat.

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This attack was apparently prompted by Turnbull’s vow to “crack down on foreign interference in Australia’s domestic affairs” as well as its possible action in the South China Sea. An anonymous Australian official with responsibility for China affairs said Beijing wanted Canberra to “change the tone of its positions”.

But now there seems to be some wiggle room in Australia’s position. When pressed on joint naval exercises with the US, Turnbull demurred: “Australia, as you know, defends the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world but we do not want to speculate on operational matters.”

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Bishop has now indicated that Australia may resist US pressure to join its freedom of navigation operations. She says Australia already upholds its rights to freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. “If we decide that we need to undertake more exercises in the South China Sea, then we’ll do it. But it’s not for other countries to dictate to Australia and they don’t.”

Bishop also reaffirmed that Australia supports freedom of the seas: “We have been traversing the South China Sea for many years in accordance with international law and we will continue to do that. Australia is an upholder and defender of the international rules-based order. We believe strongly in the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, and we will continue to traverse the South China Sea as we have in the past.”

This may sound strident and defiant vis-à-vis China. But to the specialist, it sounds more like waffling or even disingenuousness. Bishop and other leaders know that China is unlikely to object to a simple transit through the South China Sea by Australian or, for that matter, any country’s warships. Australian warships and planes make such transits fairly often. However, hyping a transit beforehand as a challenge to China for all the world to see may produce an adverse reaction. China’s military will observe the transit at a distance, just as others would observe the movements of foreign warships and war planes in their near waters.

But what China does object to and what is likely to draw a belligerent response is an operation specifically challenging its claims or breaching its national laws. Such gunboat diplomacy is both unnecessary and provocative. Hopefully Australia will wisely refrain from such a risky move that could upset the apple cart of Australia-China relations.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China