Australia is dancing with the devil’s in the South China Sea

Jul 26, 2022
Ships from the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group transit the South China Sea, March 15, 2020.
Image: Flickr / Official U.S. Navy Page

Is Australia sleepwalking into a conflict with China in the South China Sea? Canberra echoes Washington’s arguments about freedom of navigation and mimics US surveillance activities in the South China Sea, while claiming it acts in its own interests. Yet it must ask itself: how does provoking a possible military conflict serve the country or region?

The latest Australia-China warplane confrontation over the South China Sea is just the tip of an iceberg of danger in serving as a US ‘point man’ there. Indeed, 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 less it be unwittingly sucked into the US-China maelstrom.

On 5 June, the Australian Defence Department stated that ten days earlier on 26 May ”a Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) P-8A maritime surveillance plane was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft during a routine maritime surveillance activity in international airspace in the South China Sea region”. The Australian Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said the Chinese aircraft flew very close to the P-8A, released flares , and then cut across its nose and released a “bundle of chaff” that was ingested by the P-8A’s engines. Australia said this was “dangerous” and “threatened the safety of the aircraft and crew”.

China’s Defence Ministry  responded that “the Australian military aircraft seriously threatened China’s sovereignty and security and the countermeasures taken by the Chinese military were reasonable and lawful.”

The action of the Chinese jet was indeed dangerous—but why did it take such action? If the behaviour was provoked by a violation of Chinese and international law, the simple solution is to cease the activity that provokes that response –not continue it.

To determine the “right’ and ‘wrong’ of this incident we need to know the flight path of the Australian P-8A, the exact location of the incident, what it was doing, and why. If it occurred in “international air space” as Australia alleges, then it would be in Australia’s interest to specify these details. Australia’s reluctance to make these details known—especially the route and location of the incident–and the delay of ten days in reporting the incident raises suspicion that Australia may share the blame .

Regardless, the situation is dire. 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.”

The general situation worries Mr. Marles. He said “This is probably the most-dangerous period that I’ve lived through. The idea that, right now, we are witnessing the biggest military build-up [in the region] since the end of the Second World War: What have the conclusion to military build-ups of that kind been in the past? Have they [had] happy endings? That’s what keeps me awake at night.”

Probably accentuating his fears, on 13 July the U.S. conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) near the Paracels challenging China’s prior notification regime for innocent passage of warships through its territorial sea as well as its closing baselines around the cluster of features. Whether intended or not, this had the appearance of demonstrating US support for Australia regarding the latest Poseiden 8A incident. Simultaneously the US Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group entered the South China Sea.

Australia has its own well-known stark disputes with China and is far more vulnerable to it economically and militarily than the U.S.. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the root cause of the friction was the former coalition government’s portrayal of China as an “opponent” or “threat”. He proposed four ways in which Australia could improve the relationship : treat China as a “partner” rather than a rival”; seek “common ground while shelving differences”; reject manipulation “by a third party”; and build public support “ featuring positiveness and pragmatisim”.

Serving as a point man for the U.S. with provocative military aerial intelligence probes of China’s defences would seem to violate all of these.

Reducing or refraining from these unnecessary unfriendly actions would be a step forward in improving Australia-China relations. Further steps could include a reduction in its role in the Quad and AUKUS or at least those military aspects clearly designed to contain and constrain China.

In response to China’s proposals, Mr. Albanese said that Australia “does not respond to demands” But he also said “I want to build good relations with all countries, but we will stand up for Australia’s interests when we must”.

Of course he should. That is his job. But why is it in Australia’s interest to serve as a pawn in the US confrontation with China in the South China Sea?

Despite the US mantra of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and protecting freedom of navigation (FON)—often repeated by Australia-China has not threatened commercial FON there—or anywhere-and is unlikely to do so in peacetime. However, the U.S. conflates freedom of commercial navigation with the ‘freedom’ of warships and warplanes to spy and threaten China. When China objects, it claims China is violating FON. Contrary to US allegations, restrictions on the activities of military vessels in China’s waters do not threaten commercial freedom of navigation.

Australia has so far not joined or unilaterally undertaken FONOPs challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea. There are good political and legal reasons why it should not do so. But it is worrying that Mr. Marles when in opposition called for Australia to undertake US-style FONOPs. Indeed in his recent pilgrimage to Washington DC he said “we are thinking hard about above all the preservation of an inclusive regional order founded on rules agreed by all, not the coercive capabilities of a few”. This thinly veiled criticism of China and its claims in the South China Sea must have been music to the ears of US strategists. It appears that the ‘Deputy Sheriff” has returned.

Australia should examine the US argument more closely and decide if it is truly in its national interest to continue to have its policy be motivated by the US canard of China’s threat to freedom of commercial navigation.

Indeed, this serious situation raises fundamental questions for the new 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 point man in provoking it.

Australia may be 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.

An edited version of this piece appeared I the South China Morning Post.

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