A few weeks ago Foreign Minister Marise Payne condemned ‘ China’s actions in the South China Sea’, adding that in recent days the Australian frigate HMAS Parramatta had been conducting exercises with two American naval vessels as they ‘passed through the waters.’
It seems not unreasonable to ask why we would seek to become involved in a part of the world where seven littoral states have competing and often overlapping historical claims. Do we seriously suppose that our intervention can help in any way? Spokesmen for our defence and security establishment seemed quite certain that we were doing something worthwhile.
Michael Shoebridge, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, explained that we were asserting our strategic interests confronting the ‘Chinese state’s aggressive, expansionist character.’ Professor Simon Jackman from the United States Study Centre thought Australia was engaging in ‘a little bit of signalling to China’ with the implied message ‘don’t test us now.’ Who the ‘us’ was that the Professor referred to was not clear.
The Minister avoided the ill-concealed belligerence of the commentators explaining, instead of that: ‘ Australia urges all states to adhere to international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight. ’ All quite worthy of course.
But it is not clear which of the littoral states were threatening freedom of navigation or is likely to in the future. But not only is Australia far removed geographically for the waterways in question we don’t have our own flagged ships which regularly sail there. And who can disagree with such felicitous sentiments?
But to begin with, we might suggest that the Minister urge her American allies to join the other 150 or so nations and actually sign the cherished convention. It would surely be a worthy exercise of all that influence we are told we have in Washington.
And outside observers might balk at the idea of Australia championing freedom of navigation and respect for international law. Can this be the same country which for years has taken great pride in being able to ‘stop the boats’ on the high seas to prevent asylum seekers from arriving on our shores and thereby trashing the refugee convention?
In fact, Prime Minister Morrison took personal pride in stopping the boats and had a small piece of sculpture fashioned for his desk commemorating his achievement. Freedom of navigation seems to be imperative in the South China Sea but optional in the Arafura Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Since late January Australia has gone fishing in even more troubled waters dispatching the HMAS Toowoomba and a maritime surveillance plane to the Persian Gulf to join an American led coalition which is clearly part of the campaign to apply increasing pressure on Iran. America was unable to get the support of her European allies and even the majority of the Gulf States have avoided a commitment. But their most compliant ally was, as always, up for the job.
Apart from the usual mantra about freedom of navigation Australia’s engagement raises an array of questions. The ABC reported that government sources had explained that we were there to ‘combat Iran’s actions in the Strait of Hormuz.’ But the Strait is not an international waterway.
It is territorial water shared by Iran and Oman. So what can a foreign warship actually do there unless there was a Security Council mandate? And another complication is that Australia does not have any of our own flagged ships to protect. Have any of the many nations whose ships actually use the contested waterways asked for Australian assistance? The greatest amount of tanker traffic takes oil to China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia. None of them has followed Australia’s example. And as far as we can tell none of the littoral states have asked Australia to become involved.
What we have is another case of interference in places and disputes which have little to do with our national interests. And it all unfolded with little public debate and easy complicity from the Labor opposition. Defence Shadow Minister Richard Marles thought the involvement was ‘an appropriate response’ because Australia ‘has a particular interest in freedom of navigation.’ Defence Minister Linda Reynolds pointed to a wider list of objectives. Beyond maritime security, Australia was there to promote ‘stability and prosperity in the Middle East.’ It was, then, a very wide, self- selected mission.
Two observations force themselves on our attention. Australia’s ever-recurring military involvement in parts of the world remote from our own borders needs explaining. Is it just a matter of an old habit that over-rides prudence and caution?
Or is it a post-Imperial overhang that harks back to the time when it was normal for white men to think they had both the right and the obligation to send expeditionary forces off into the wider world on missions to put things right. The second thought is that we seem quite incapable of learning from the past when, involvement with American adventurism is concerned, even after Vietnam, even after our contribution to the strategic and humanitarian disaster of the war in Iraq.
And yet here we are again. We have ships with perhaps 400 or so personnel sailing into two of the most volatile and dangerous places in the world. In both locations, there is a high possibility that miscalculation or misunderstanding could spark a conflict that could quickly slip out of control. This is manifestly the case in the Persian Gulf. And we continue to behave as though President Trump and his administration can be expected to act with rational self- restraint in consultation with allies. Given the extraordinary conjunction of the coronavirus and an impending, bitterly contested election campaign the only sensible conclusion is that anything could happen.
To go fishing willingly in troubled waters at such a time as this is the height of reckless irresponsibility.