How Western allies subvert international law and norms to ‘contain’ China

Dec 9, 2023
East Asia and Oceania Map - Detailed Vector Illustration

The US has been ruthlessly militarising what some Pentagon strategists have called the island chains of defence in the Indo-Pacific with quiet ‘Five Eyes’ help.

There are many straits and passages with unfamiliar names across the Indo-Pacific. Some are potential flashpoints in the event of a regional war. The Taiwan Strait is the best known. Others are more obscure but nevertheless strategically important for military access and supply as well as hi-tech spying such as penetrating undersea internet cables.
That’s why the United States has been busy fortifying what some Pentagon strategists have called the first, second and even third island chains of “defence” against China.

In some cases, though, the US and its close allies Britain and Australia are doing it in defiance of international law and norms, United Nations advisories and/or global consensus.

While Western media incessantly report on Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea, their own governments’ activities and duplicities over much larger regions are rarely mentioned.

Consider the three cases of the Chagos Archipelago, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and some Pacific island states in Oceania. Together, they cover large swathes of maritime defence for the Western powers.

Cocos (Keeling) Islands

Situated in the Indian Ocean, the Cocos are atolls that lie closer to Jakarta than Perth. They are one of two external territories possessed by Australia, the other being Christmas Island.

The latter is infamous for its use to detain illegal migrants and their widely reported abuse and inhumane treatment. You can say it’s for internal security.

The other, the Cocos or Keeling Islands, is being repurposed for defence, and it’s up for a big expansion under the Labor government of Anthony Albanese. Shortly before the prime minister travelled to Beijing to make nice again with the Chinese last month, a plan was announced worth A$567.6 million (US$379 million) to install military assets, especially the expansion of an existing runway to allow for heavier military planes.

It will be part of the government’s military transformation for “missile warfare”, according to a report by the state-subsidised Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). The expanded runway will be able to take on P-8A Poseidon aircraft – which, according to the ABC, are capable of “low-level anti-submarine warfare operations and hi-tech military surveillance’ – and long-range US military drones.

The expansive upgrade is, of course, tied closely with Australia’s A$368 billion Aukus nuclear-powered attack submarine deal with the US and Britain.

The Cocos are strategically located to monitor and spy over a vast sweep of Asia, but especially the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits, which are busy with all sorts of ships, craft and submarines, but especially those of the Chinese military.

Coupled with new military assets in the northern Philippines, they will form a regional surveillance and military network extending coverage from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea through which more than a fifth of the world’s shipping passes.

There is one slight legal and diplomatic problem, though. In 1984, when Canberra successfully convinced the United Nations not to oppose the transfer of the former British possession, it agreed as part of the Act of Self Determination for Cocos to be integrated into Australia that the islands would not be converted for military purposes.
That commitment has the force of international law. But never mind; what the US wants, the US gets. Who can oppose it now?

The Chagos Archipelago

After some lengthy official consideration, the Tory government of Rishi Sunak looks set to reject a proposal to hand back the Chagos Islands – whose largest Diego Garcia island is host to one of the US’ most important military bases in the Indo-Pacific – to Mauritius.

In 2019, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory that the United Kingdom must unconditionally withdraw its colonial administration from the area within six months.

Then the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt a resolution in support of the court’s judgment. The vote counts? They were 116 in favour, six against (Australia, Hungary, Israel, Maldives, United Kingdom, United States), with 56 abstentions.

The UN called on the UK to “enable Mauritius to complete the decolonisation of its territory as soon as possible”.
Then, again in 2021, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled that Britain had no sovereignty over the Chagos Islands and criticised London for its failure to hand the territory back to Mauritius.

Well, that’s the REAL rules-based international system in action; and it’s being subverted by the very loud West for its own “rules-based” claims.

Recently, the British foreign office was examining the possibility of complying with the UN demands. But under intense pressure from the US, the defence department seems to have overruled it. This is despite a long-standing offer from Mauritius that the US could continue to operate its military base on Diego Garcia with total control.

Island states in Oceania

To calm turbulent waters, Liu Jianchao, head of the Central Committee’s international department, told an audience in Sydney last week that China did not seek to challenge Australia’s influence among the Pacific island states. It was a tacit acknowledgement of Australia’s unspoken sphere of influence. So much for the hysteria, year after year, of the Australian press about the imminent war threat from China.

Meanwhile, the US, with full cooperation from Australia and New Zealand, has been busy fortifying the entire Oceania and militarising it, with enormous implications for maritime defence and legitimate boundaries under the international law of the sea.

In Western news media and many think tanks, it’s almost always claimed that China maintains that, under international law, foreign militaries are not able to conduct military and intelligence-gathering activities, such as reconnaissance flights, in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

But China is hardly the only one that maintains this interpretation. India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam – all of which have territorial or maritime disputes with China – share the same position that independent states have the right to limit access to foreign militaries for security purposes within their EEZs.

By contrast, the United States claims that the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the US has not even signed, allows other countries to exercise freedom of navigation without the need to notify before entering someone’s EEZs; and that covers military craft as well. Guess which country has the naval capabilities to sail everywhere in the world!

Now, new deals negotiated by Washington with Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau under the so-called Compact of Free Association can potentially nullify the UNCLOS under a new doctrine.

Under the old deal, the US already had control of their foreign and defence policies including territorial access. But under the new deal, the US military can control access to all three island states’ EEZs, including preventing others from entering them. This is not so different from good old colonial extraterritoriality.

It’s doubtful, as I have argued previously, that such an expensive doctrine of defence would be confined only to three tiny island states in the Pacific. Rather the whole idea is that it will be applicable to all US-protected territories, including continental America.

The upshot is that while everyone else is bound by its self-serving interpretation of the UNCLOS, the US considers itself free from its legal constraints.

The whole idea of the US pivot to Asia (or containing China), as elsewhere, is to do as I say, not as I do.

Republished from South China Morning Post on December 4, 2023.

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