Richard Broinowski. Australia and the South China Sea

A tangled web of territorial claims threatens stability in the South China Sea. The figures appear rubbery, but a consensus is that Philippines occupies seven islands and reefs, Malaysia five, China eight and Taiwan one. Vietnam occupies twenty seven. There is also conflict over fishing grounds. Meanwhile, there seems little or no room for compromise, especially between China, Vietnam and Taiwan, all of which claim sovereignty over all of the main chain of islands, the Spratlys.

In three unusual examples of public diplomacy, both Chinese and Vietnamese officials recently put their conflicting cases to selected Australian audiences. On 1 March, Ouyang Yujing, Director General of Boundary and Ocean Affairs in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told selected groups of Australians in Canberra and Sydney that China was the first country to name and administer the South Sea islands. Chinese sovereignty was established in the second century BC. He cited more recent treaties and maps from British, French, Chinese and Japanese official sources to reinforce the claims.

Guo Yezhou, Vice Minister of the International Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee was less restrained. On 18 March he told Australian participants at a round-table at AIIA in Sydney that all South China Sea islands were part of China. But this, he asserted, was disputed by the United States. While claiming it was not taking sides between conflicting territorial claims, the US was marshalling its considerable military assets in the region, and busily reinforcing military alliances with Japan, Australia and the Philippines, all designed to contain China. Some littoral countries had deployed heavy weapons on islands they occupy, so China had reciprocated on the ones it occupies. Guo said China has the capacity to take back islands occupied by others, but would not do so because this would foment war. China wanted to work together with all concerned countries to reduce tensions. China supports the freedom of navigation, but freedom could be compromised by outside interference.

The Vietnamese case was put by Dr Lan Anh of Vietnam’s Diplomatic Academy, an offshoot of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry. In a meeting with AIIA councillors at Glover Cottages on 3 March, she claimed all South Sea islands belonged to Vietnam. In a complex recital, she claimed historical records from France, Britain, China and Japan ‘proved’ Vietnam’s case. Vietnam would continue to defend its claims, by force if necessary. She spoke with a fierce conviction born of painstaking research for a PhD she took at Bristol University.

At the official level in Canberra, Australia seems to be reflexively following the American lead and sleep-walking into an increasingly dangerous situation. We claim neutrality. We insist that former Prime Minister Howard’s promise to China during the Taiwan crisis in 1996 means that our alliance with the United States is not directed at China, and that his later claim that Australia does not have to choose between China and the US remains true. But these assertions look increasingly shaky. During President Obama’s visit to Australia in 2011 when he announced his ‘pivot’ to Asia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard welcomed US Marines into Darwin, the first enduring deployment of American ground troops since World War II. Australia recently countenanced deployment of USAF B-1 bombers to Darwin, later withdrawn, but not before an adverse Chinese reaction.

Meanwhile, visiting American officials ramp up the Chinese threat. In March 2016, US commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr, told a naval conference in Canberra that China was building a ‘great wall of sand’ in the South China Sea.

Danger runs high for Australia in what former Defence Deputy Secretary Hugh White describes as a titanic struggle for regional leadership between China and the US. White suggests only two alternatives – either the US abandons any major role in Asia, or the US and China agree on a new order which accommodates some of China’s ambitions but preserves a major role for the US. While these choices are stark and unrefined, leaving little room for a more nuanced compromise, White is right to suggest the present situation is untenable, because there is little regional support for trying to force China to back down. The leaders of Japan and India have made it plain that they will not carry America’s banner by sending naval units through the Sea to test China’s territorial claims. Neither will South Korea, nor most of the leaders of ASEAN, or Canada, Britain, or New Zealand.

But Australia? In an article published in November 2015, Bob Carr quotes the American strategist Edward Luttwak saying that Australia ‘fully retains the Anglo-Saxon trait of bellicosity’. But to gallop off wearing our deputy’s badge in Australian ships or aircraft to test China’s resolve to protect the islands it occupies in the South China Sea would be a lonely road. We would be Washington’s only ally pursuing military means. What Australians should agitate for is agreement between Washington and Beijing which allows China space in the South China Sea as befits a great power, the kind of space the United States enjoys in the Caribbean and along its eastern and western seaboards. Can the hawks in Canberra and their advisers be persuaded to support such a plan? We should fervently hope so.

Richard Broinowski is a former diplomat and Ambassador to Vietnam, Korea and Mexico.

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