Australia and Japan should calm tensions in the South China Sea

Apr 18, 2024
Australia and Japan flags with Speech Bubbles. 3D Illustration

Geopolitical tensions are rising again in the South China Sea. President Biden’s trilateral meeting with PM Kishida from Japan and President Marcos to discuss military strategy to contain China’s perceived “coercive policy” will not help calm the waters.

President Biden and Premier Kishida will soon introduce security and economic initiatives in support of the Philippines that is breaking ranks with ASEAN countries pushing for a more balanced policy in the SCS.

These initiatives are likely to fuel more tensions.

The Philippines under Marcos Jnr has been the most anti- China in its foreign policy orientations since the Presidency of Gloria Arroyo – Macapagal (2001-2010).

Many believe Marcos Jnr, who has a family agenda to pursue, hopes to benefit from his relations with the outgoing President Biden. By giving the US access to four additional military bases, following the earlier Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2014, President Marcos has endeared himself to the US.

Marcos pro- US policy brings back memories of demonstrations against the stationing of US military bases in the Philippines in the 1990s which led to the eventual evacuation of US military forces in 1991.

A Filipino scholar, Anna Milindog-Uy from the Philippines Strategic Studies Institute blames the Marcos administration for the rising geopolitical tensions in the SCS. Accusing the regime of becoming a “willing pawn and proxy” in the US-Indo Pacific strategy that aims to contain China, she claims Manila does not share US strategic interests like exercising “freedom of navigation” rights in the SCS.

The scholar claims Marcos wants to drag the Philippines into the US conflict with China without giving much thought to its consequences. She questions: why does Marcos wants to get involved in a US-China rivalry that does not concern the Philippines directly? In her opinion, the overlapping claims in the SCS could be settled amicably among the claimant states.

She also accuses the US, a non-signatory to the United Nations on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of undermining the established international rules and order for ocean uses and governance.

The tensions in the SCS becomes more complicated with outside parties like Japan and Australia goading America to use force to roll back China’s increasing influence in the Indo- Pacific region. By supporting President Marcos who wants to settle some personal scores with his predecessors, Arroyo and Duterte, the extra regional powers (e.g., Australia and Japan) are also involved in Philippines’s internal dynastic power struggles.

The Arroyo and Duterte dynasties remain close friends of China.

Australia and Japan have significant economic interests in maintaining good relations with China. Their involvement in military activities that raise tensions in the South China Sea could potentially destabilise the region.

Given Australia’s geographical proximity to Southeast Asia and its strong economic ties with countries in the region, maintaining stability is crucial for its own security and prosperity.

Taking actions that antagonise China in the South China Sea could have negative economic repercussions for Australia and Japan, including trade disruptions and reduced investment.

While Australia has strong security ties with the US and Japan through alliances such as ANZUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), it also values its autonomy in foreign policy decision-making.

Australia may choose to align itself with the US and Japan on certain issues while pursuing its own interests and objectives independently in others. Canberra is better off maintaining a neutral position in the US-China rivalry.

Instead of encouraging the rival parties to cross swords, Australia and Japan should exercise strategic restraint and refrain from provocative actions that could escalate tensions in the region. This may involve avoiding military build-ups, military exercises, refraining from unilateral actions that challenge the status quo, and demonstrating a commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes.

Major power rivalry in the SCS is mainly over who will control the resources and the waterway. As a transient distant power, the US strategic interests in the SCS are not permanent when compared with those of China as a coastal state. In the event of an armed conflict between China and the US over skirmishes in the Spratly, as the frontline state, the Philippines is likely to bear the brunt of the fall-out.

The region cannot afford another Gaza or Ukraine.

We call for calm.

All warring parties must apply diplomatic skills to douse the flame in the SCS that will engulf the entire region.

We encourage all sides to engage in diplomatic talks aimed at finding mutually acceptable solutions to disputes in the region. This could involve bilateral discussions or multilateral forums such as ASEAN-led initiatives.

The conflicting parties should emphasise the importance of upholding international law, including UNCLOS, as the basis for resolving disputes in the SCS. At the minimum, all parties must abide by international legal norms and respect the rights of other claimant states.

At the same time, the extra-regional powers like Australia and Japan, who have no territorial claims, should stay out of the conflict in region. They also should not muddy the waters.

Let China and the US settle their rivalry by themselves.

While Australia and Japan may have legitimate concerns about China’s actions in the South China Sea and the broader Indo-Pacific region, pursuing military confrontation is not in their best interests.

Instead, Tokyo and Canberra should continue to prioritise diplomatic efforts, multilateral cooperation, and confidence-building measures to address security challenges and promote regional stability.

Overall, resolving tensions in the South China Sea requires a multifaceted approach that addresses both the underlying sources of conflict and immediate challenges to stability. Effective diplomacy, adherence to international law, and cooperation among regional stakeholders are essential components of any successful strategy.

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