Garry Woodard. Should Australia do more on the South China Sea?

Mar 28, 2016

No. The Prime Minister’s statement in regards to the Middle East that this is not the time for gestures or machismo applies in spades to what we do in the South China Sea. Australia should act prudently and, though some will see this as a contradiction, transparently and after full parliamentary and public debate.

Australia’s relative propinquity gives us an interest in the outcome of the territorial disputes between countries in the South China Sea, but will our interest in seeing a peaceful resolution be helped or harmed by introducing an Australian naval presence? As Australia already has a naval presence in the North China Sea, and northwest Cape supports intelligence collection there, are we not bound to see the China Sea as a strategic whole? Is this not the strategic perception of the US Seventh Fleet?

Sir Arthur Tange wrote from close observation of ‘the US Navy’s global view and the nuisance they found in other people’s sovereignty’. If we put ourselves in China’s shoes would we not have the same strategic perception? Do we understand China’s thinking? What if the most recently reported militarisation of Woody Island is defensive, to improve intelligence gathering against a perceived threat, rather like the extensions built northward from the Great Wall to get better forewarning of the threat from the Mongols? If the strategic perception should be of the China Sea as a whole, the core problem is China’s unfinished reunification.

Nobody who heard Deng Xiaoping on the subject could doubt the emotional pull of seeing Taiwan rejoin the motherland, even if in accordance with Mao’s timetable of 100 years.

Australia, unlike greater powers, avoided involvement in the Chinese civil war. As Michael Fogarty described in a recent book review in Australian Outlook, had it not been for the skill of Australian diplomats it might have been an Australian warship instead of HMS Amethyst which was fired on in the Yangtze incident. The Chifley Government in 1949, unlike New Zealand, refused to send a warship to Hong Kong when the Chinese Communists took power on the mainland.

Under Menzies, numerous attempts by the Americans to get Australia to share its residual responsibilities from involvement in the Chinese civil war for the security of Taiwan were deflected. Menzies went to Washington in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Eisenhower that Taiwan should give up the offshore islands. In 1964 Menzies involved himself in de-escalating a crisis with Indonesia precipitated by the British sending a nuclear-armed carrier task force through the Sunda Straits: diplomatic good sense to precedence over asserting rights of innocent passage. Menzies had the confidence and stature to give Eisenhower a lecture on the danger of governments taking action which risked war without having public opinion behind them. That is not a long bow to draw in the broad context of addressing the current question. As Churchill said, and Hugh White is arguing, ‘better jaw jaw than war war’.

Garry Woodard, former diplomat and Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne.

This article was first published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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