JAMES O’NEILL. More alarm bells ring for Australia in the South China Sea.

Jan 17, 2017

President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of state had his confirmation hearings in Washington last week. A number of his reported statements should have raised alarm among Australian politicians and foreign affairs bureaucrats. With the exception of former Prime Minister Paul Keating however, the response was largely asinine.  

Whether Mr Tillerson was grandstanding for the purpose of his confirmation hearing, ‘talking tough’ because he knew that was what his interlocutors wanted to hear, or whether it reflected the beliefs and policies of the new Trump administration, we will have to wait and see.

What exactly did Mr Tillerson say that should be cause for concern? Bearing in mind that these were isolated quotes from a nine hour grilling, Mr Tillerson was reported as having said that China’s territorial claims were “illegal” and “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.”

China’s claim to sovereignty within the so-called Nine Dash Line was first formulated in 1948, nearly two years before the PRC government came into existence. It was a formulation pronounced by the then Nationalist government of Chiang Kai Shek, whose successors in Taiwan maintain the same claim as the PRC to this day.

Whether or not the claim is “illegal” is a moot point. The ruling of the Court of Arbitration in favour of the Philippines is not legally binding and is unenforceable. The Chinese boycotted the hearing, and the ostensible “winner” the Philippines, whose case was argued by British and American lawyers, has effectively ignored the ruling.

Philippine President Duterte has taken significant steps to distance himself from the ruling (and from the US) and has instead entered into bilateral negotiations with the Chinese government. It seems that none of the nations bordering the South China Sea are relying on the Court’s ruling. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop repeated her stock response of asking all claimants to observe the arbitration ruling. That is likely to be ignored as well.

Is China’s claim to part of the South China Sea “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea? Russia’s alleged “taking” of Crimea is a favoured propaganda argument of the western media and many politicians, including in Australia. As with so much comment on Russia, it owes more to the demonization of Russia in general and Mr Putin in particular than it does to any historical fact.

Crimea had been part of Russia for centuries until 1954 when then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “gifted” it to Ukraine, without consulting either the Crimeans or the Russians.   As the USSR was largely a single political entity Khrushchev probably did not think it mattered very much.

Crimea however, has strategic significance as Australians well know. Australian troops fought Russia in the Crimean War of 1854-56, an early example of this country’s ever willingness to fight on behalf of other imperial interests thousands of kilometers from any possible Australian strategic interest.

After the US inspired, organized and financed coup against the sovereign Ukrainian government in February 2014, Crimeans sought to be reunited with Russia. A significant factor behind the coup was the intention to deprive Russia of its important naval base at Sevastopol. More than 90% of Crimeans voted in the referendum and more than 90% of them voted in favour of secession from Ukraine and reunification with Russia.

The United States bombed Serbia to allow Kosovo to secede. They went on to establish a massive military base there (Camp Bond Steel). The allegations against Russia over Crimea were not only wrong in international law, they were a classic illustration of western hypocrisy.

Very little of this is ever referred to in the western media because clearly it does not fit the preferred narrative of “Russian aggression.” Any resemblance of Crimea to the South China Sea is therefore vanishingly small.

Mr Tillerson is also reported as saying that “first, island building must stop, and second, your access to those islands is not going to be allowed.” Again, there are several elements to this statement, breathtaking for its irony and hubris.

First, American warships are patrolling the South China Sea, ostensibly to assert ‘freedom of navigation’ rights although there is not a single instance of China interfering with civilian shipping that can be cited. To threaten to stop China’s access to the “islands” is at the very least inconsistent with China’s freedom of navigation rights.

Secondly, and far more significantly, quite how will China be stopped from visiting those islands? The only feasible way would be by military intervention, and that would be an act of war to which China would assuredly respond in military fashion. Does Australia really want a war with China over this issue? Mr Tillerson made clear he expected their ‘regional allies’ to step up in this situation. That would mean Australia going to war with our largest trading partner which is its own special kind of insanity.

Thirdly, and this is illustrative of a more general point with mainstream media non-reporting of significant information, why is the focus on the Chinese man-made islands?

China has constructed eight such man-made islands in the South China Sea. Many of them have been equipped with military hardware such as anti-aircraft batteries and ground to air missiles. China could, and does, argue that these are defensive in character. Given the behaviour and statements of the Americans, not only Tillerson but also the remarks of Admiral Harry Harris on his recent visit to Australia, such steps would normally be regarded as prudent.

But several other nations bordering the South China Sea, including Taiwan and Vietnam have between them constructed more than 40 such artificial islands, in many cases similarly equipped with military hardware. Taiwan for example, has constructed a military airfield, and Vietnam has installed missiles capable of reaching the Chinese mainland. Yet the mainstream media are almost totally silent on these developments.

As with the reporting on Crimea, to acknowledge that other nations are engaging in exactly the same way as China does not fit the preferred narrative of “Chinese assertiveness”.

Mr Tillerson is also quoted as saying that China’s control of access to the South China Sea would be “a threat to the entire global economy.” The response to this by former Prime Minister Paul Keating was exactly to the point. It was, Keating said, “simply ludicrous.”

If any country is threatened by hostile activity in the South China Sea it is surely China. Similarly, any threat to freedom of shipping in the South China Sea would hurt China more than any other nation. A very high proportion of its waterborne trade, including more than 70% of its vital oil and gas supplies, passes through the Strait of Malacca.

Each year, in Operation Talisman Sabre, the US and Australian navies practice a blockade of the Malacca Strait, one of seven maritime ‘choke points’ around the world. According to the 2002 Department of Defence (US) document Vision 2020, control of those seven choke points was a key strategic objective, part of its ‘full spectrum dominance’ policy.

It is difficult to think of any peaceful reason why the US (and Australia) would want to control the Strait of Malacca. The real reason is far more likely to be as a key component of the encirclement and ‘containment’ of China that remains, under Trump, a key policy objective of the Americans.

In this context, as in the Middle East and as with NATO’s continuing military buildup on Russia’s borders, Mr Tillerson is identifying the wrong nation when it comes to ‘aggression’ and ‘assertiveness’.

Mr Keating also reiterated his view that the Trump presidency was an opportunity to “cut the tag” with the US and develop a more independent foreign policy geared more closely to Asia.

As was noted earlier, it may be unfair to Mr Tillerson to take small extracts from a nine-hour grilling. The bigger picture, as Tony Kevin argues  (https://johnmenadue.com/blog/?p=90980) was that Tillerson’s formidable competence, calmness and negotiating skills were fully on display during the confirmation hearings. That is precisely what is needed after the warmongering dishonesty of the Clinton years and the bumbling ineffectualness of Kerry.

Nonetheless, Keating’s wider point is an important one. Blind adherence to the US does not serve Australia’s national interest. If Tillerson’s reported remarks on Russia and China are reflected in actual policy post 20 January 2017 then we are moving into even more dangerous times. A fundamental rethink of our foreign policy is long overdue.

James O’Neill, Barrister at Law. He may be contacted at joneill@qldbar.asn.au

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