MACK WILLIAMS. Adrift in  the South China Sea? -A REPOST from May 22 2017

Jan 10, 2018

While Washington is paralysed by alleged White House scandal the US has taken its eye off the South China Sea. Continuing developments in the region have reinforced China’s position. Australia cannot afford to delay its own examination of our long term national interests in our neighbourhood. 

As  Washington has become increasingly entrapped in the tangled web  of allegations about collusion of the Trump campaign team ( if not President Trump himself) with the Russians and the cascading drama of the sacking of the FBI Director , the White House and the US media have found little time to devote to continuing developments in the South China Sea (SCS) – or even North Korea. As understandable as this may be in the US domestic political scene, Australian policy makers should be maintaining a very close watch on how things are unfolding in the SCS – as we have been arguing for some time through our notes in this blog.

There have been three significant developments in the past week:

  • at their meeting in Guizhou, ASEAN and China prepared a draft framework on a binding code of conduct in the SCS. Details have not yet been released and there remains legitimate scepticism about its implementation but it is a major step after 15 years or so of talk.
  • President Duterte has announced that he will visit Moscow in the coming weeks to discuss greater mutual cooperation – especially in defence procurement. This follows his response accepting  Trump’s invitation but pointing out that he had to go to Russia and Israel first!
  • China’s announcement that it had installed weaponry on another reef in the SCS

All of this underlined how successful China has been in exerting itself in the SCS and how limited the US continues to be there. This cannot all be laid at the feet of Trump as the soft power strategy which China has deployed so effectively in the SCS has been underway from well back into the Obama presidency. Again, as we have pointed out in earlier notes, unfortunately this process was recognised too late by Australian policy makers  who stuck far too long to their hopes that the US could use its military power to correct the drift in the SCS . And then in vain tried to influence the Philippines and some other SCS claimants to stiffen up their counter  to the Chinese moves – and also Indonesia which has insisted that it is not a claimant and  reportedly resisted Australian attempts to be drawn into any joint military operations in the SCS . This was abundantly clear well before Trump was elected and based to a large extent on the US prism through which Australia analysed the scene  increasingly embedded as it now is in the US military and intelligence  apparatus.

Since Trump’s inauguration the defence and intelligence elites in Canberra (like everybody else) have been struggling to read all the SCS tealeaves and apparently underestimated the prospect that under Trump the SCS would be a lower priority foreign policy issue . Even before the rapid evolution of the North Korean issue, Trump had ISIS, Syria and the wider but connected Russian problem in Eastern Europe, all the campaign pledges he had made on China and his domestic issues. Fitting the SCS into that impressive list was always going to be a challenge .  And now he is off to address the Muslim world and meet the Pope !

The Carl Vinson became an early interesting factor in this regard. After it had completed its (unheralded) February deployment into Korean waters it was to be despatched to the SCS to undertake the freedom-of-navigation (FONOPS)  around the Chinese installations and make port calls on claimant states. But at the last moment Breitbart (the US media organisation associated with Steve Bannon) reported that the ship had been withdrawn from the operation with the implication that this had resulted from a senior White House review to modify policy on FONOPS in the SCS. The report suggested that this had all come as news to senior Pentagon officials! All of which was inevitably buried by the eventual sailing of the Carl Vinson to Singapore and beyond without any FONOPS or other port visits. Presumably at some stage Defence must have become privy to some of this because of the planned operations with the RAN after Singapore.

It has also become clearer that the SCS has been part of the North Korea deal on which Trump and Xi have been closely working together. Speculation that an agreement for Trump to tone down US policy in the SCS  has been one of his concessions may not be too idle.

Where does that leave Australia?  Surely by now politicians and policy makers must have realised that the US protected shell into which we have been moving so enthusiastically in recent years under the guise of interoperability and intelligence sharing needs to be seriously and soberly examined in the night of our long term national interest.  Before I receive the usual blast from usual sources let me make it clear that we should be able to do this without damaging our Alliance which since Bush Jr has been far too “with us or against us”. Nor am I entering here the arena of “China versus US” for Australia.

We cannot continue to hide behind the pretence that Australia’s  understanding of and relationships with South East Asia have not been damaged significantly in recent times. For one thing few in Australia – sometimes even at senior levels – fail to appreciate the extent and speed of change in SE Asia and the urgency of the need to customise policies towards it – on a far more equal basis and less on a one size fits all.

Sadly I was reminded of this challenge by a recent reference in the media to an Australian defence related academic characterising recent developments  along these lines  : “the views of the stabiliser countries – Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia – are unfortunately being undermined by other views”! Just how badly does that misunderstand the real situation – and reflect the way so much of the Pentagon and associated think tanks continues to assess the scene. Another one is the repeated inability to accept Duterte’s legitimacy and views by hoping to “walk him back”!

Mack Williams was Australian Ambassador to ROK and Philippines.


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