Albanese, Xi meet in the shadow of the Australia-China-US triangle

Nov 10, 2023
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

As Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited Beijing in an attempt to improve relations, Elena Collinson warned that untangling Australia- China relations from China- U.S. relations would be difficult. Indeed, Australia–China relations remain deeply troubled. Because the dynamics and dangers in the relationship are still the same, it is worth revisiting a piece I wrote last year for Pearls and Irritations.

As the U. S. – China struggle for domination of the South China Sea becomes ever more dangerous, Australia finds itself at the edge of an intensifying political and military whirlpool that could lead to kinetic conflict. Australia needs to reevaluate its interests and policies lest it be dragged into this maelstrom.

The situation is dire. Australia has well-known stark disputes with China and is far more vulnerable to it economically and militarily than the U.S. As prominent Australian international law professor Don Rothwell says “it is clear that there is a pattern associated with Australia’s activities now [that is] very much aligned with the way in which the United States conducts similar activities.” Australia, to a degree, is isolated and, yes, the risk of miscalculation is one that is very live.”

Like all nations, Australia has a right to a military presence in the South China Sea. But how and why it exercises that right have become key policy questions. Perhaps it should consider how it would react if Chinese Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) planes were operating off its coast probing its defences and dropping sonobuoys to detect its submarines? In May 2022, then Defence Minister Peter Dutton called the presence of a Chinese intelligence collection ship in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off Exmouth Naval Base an “aggressive act.”

Should Australia risk kinetic conflict with China with aerial intelligence probes along its coast and contemplated Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) challenging its maritime claims in support of the US ? Or should it revert to its traditional role of collaborating and protecting Malaysia and Singapore through the Five Power Defence Agreement (FPDA)?

Australian leaders and pundits say that Australia has been sending intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and its military vessels into the South China Sea for decades. That is so. But the mission has morphed from that of the FPDA to one on behalf of the U.S. in its struggle with China for regional dominance. This is what may bring it into kinetic conflict with China.

Prominent Australian analyst Rory Medcalf has summarised Australia’s interests in the South China Sea as “rules, balance and lifelines”. He justifies the Australian military presence because Australia is “a major trading nation, a regional maritime player in international law, a middle power that benefits from the protection of norms and international law, a partner to its Asian neighbours, and an ally of the U.S.”.

Let’s deconstruct this conflated list one item at a time and examine if these reasons are sufficient to justify the risk of political, economic and military conflict with China.

First of all only about 20% of Australia’s exports pass through the South China Sea –not two thirds as its Defence Department White Paper has it. Moreover, most of this is destined for China. Further there is an alternative route available between eastern Australia, Japan and South Korea that passes to the east of the Philippines.

More important China has not threatened freedom of commercial navigation and is unlikely to do so in peace time. The idea that it does or might is the result of US conflation of the freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom for its military assets to threaten and spy. China does consider some of these latter activities as violations of the duty proscribed in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to pay due regard to its rights and interests in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Does Australia really want to risk confrontation and military conflict with China over this conflated and politicised US principle?

The key in Australia’s reasoning seems to be as Medcalf says Australia is a middle power and an ally of the U.S. But that is the problem. Australia is a middle power only and is risking the ire of a great power China on behalf of its ally the U.S. Would Australia be doing this on its own if it weren’t an ally of the U.S.? If not, why is it sticking its neck out? Shouldn’t Australia’s focus be on defending and surveilling its waters and adjacent approaches rather than collecting intelligence along China’s coast?

After a dangerous incident between China and Australia warplanes, the Australian Department of Defence said that it has for decades undertaken maritime surveillance activities in the region. Indeed its original excuse is the Five Power Defence Arrangement. But this has morphed from a pact to protect Malaysia and Singapore after the UK withdrew from the region, to support for the US effort to contain China.

Where Medcalf’s reasoning really goes off the rails is the implication that Australia is in the South China Sea to demonstrate its support of norms and international law.

First of all, its ally, the U.S. whom it appears to be supporting and assisting in the South China Sea has not ratified the constitution of the oceans –UNCLOS– that it uses to justify its presence. Moreover Australia is hardly a shining example of conformance with international order. It also violates UNCLOS with its EEZ claim around Heard Island and its mandatory requirement of permission for foreign vessels passing through the Torres Strait. But most prominent and embarrassing in this regard is its behaviour regarding its maritime boundaries dispute with Timore Leste. In the height of hypocrisy Australia’s Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson joined Blinken in urging adherence to UNCLOS. “Respect for international laws, including UNCLOS is fundamental to peace, prosperity and stability in the region.”

Finally Medcalf cites Australia’s partnership with its Asian neighbours. It is true that AUKUS – the agreement between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. to supply nuclear submarine and underwater drone technology to Australia will eventually make Australia a recognised player and fuse its destiny with that of the U.S. in operations in the South China Sea. But that is as a participant in the US strategy to contain China not at the request of the regional countries. Indeed, some are quite opposed to AUKUS as they see it as the beginning of a renewed arms race.

This may be the best reason provided Malaysia and Singapore want Australia to participate on their behalf in a provocative US full court kinetic press on China. Some point to the FPDA as justification. But this 1971 Cold War agreement between Australia, U.K., New Zealand and Singapore provides only for ‘consultation’ in the event or threat of an armed attack on any party. There is no specific commitment to intervene militarily.

The enforcement of a state’s EEZ rights is not mentioned although I suppose the state can ask for assistance in doing so. FPDA has an Integrated Air Defence System for Malaysia and Singapore based in Butterworth under Australia’s command. While most exercises take place off the coasts of Malaysia and Singapore, some have extended into the South China Sea. Australian Poseiden P8s also operate over the South China Sea from Singapore, Brunei, Manila and Darwin. Under Operation Gateway, Canberra has conducted airborne surveillance operations over the South China Sea and Indian Ocean since 1980.

But this does not justify Australia’s intelligence collection flights along China’s coast. These may be undertaken under the controversial Five Eyes (FVEY). This is an intelligence alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. that focuses on signals intelligence but also includes collection of defence, human and geospatial intelligence. It originated as an anti-Soviet effort but has greatly expanded its remit. Edward Snowden described FVEY as a “supra-national organisation that does not answer to known laws of its own countries. It even spies on one another’s citizens to get around domestic prohibitions on such by members own governments.

Is this really the type of organisation Australia should be promoting in the region and using to justify its military intelligence probes against China in the South China Sea?

The next step for Australia is to undertake Freedom of Navigation Operations against China’s claims – either unilaterally or with the U.S. For good reasons despite seeming US pressure Australia has so far declined to do so. But if the China threat proponents have their way it will soon do so. That could well trigger conflict and the Australian people would not know that the government has risked their existence to support the US containment strategy. This is the ultimate of supporting an ally – sacrificing itself and its people for it. It is one thing to support allies in a war. It is another to help it provoke a war in which it will be one of the first victims.

Australia undertakes military exercises with Southeast Asian countries like recently drills on Sumatra in neighbour Indonesia. But such exercises are – according to Indo-Pacific Commander, Admiral John C. Aguilino – a response to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Australian Defence Secretary Richard Marles continues to press China as a threat. Marles is reported to have said, “We’ve just got to have a really clear eyed focus, every moment and where national interest lies and speak to that. Our national interest lies in the East China Sea and the South China Sea in what are the rules of the road – the global rules based order.” He also said Australia would continue its ISR probes in the South China Sea. Indeed, hours after a dangerous incident involving Australian and Chinese warplanes in the South China Sea, Australia deployed a second ISR plane to the area. After another close encounter of a dangerous kind, it sent two missions out of Clark in quick succession over the South China Sea. Clearly Australia has been bent on poking China in the eye regardless of the consequences.

Following the meeting between Albanese and Xi, there is hope that the Albanese administration will now take a more rational longer term view.

But to date, Australia has been sleepwalking into kinetic conflict with China in the South China Sea. Is this what the Albanese government wants? If so it should be clear and honest with its people and Southeast Asian countries that assist it as to the risks it –and they– face and why it is taking them in a Sea far from its shores.

Indeed, this serious situation raises fundamental questions for the government of Anthony Albanese.


How far should Australia go on behalf of the U.S. in this game of military chicken in the South China Sea? It is one thing to be a US ally in time of war but quite another to be the proxy point man in provoking it.

An updated post from 2022

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