MACK WILLIAMS. South China Sea: China taps in the last nail!

It is now clear for all to see that the only potential US “ally” for any US confrontation in the region could be Australia. China has successfully wedged the ASEAN’s in through their common concern that it would be them that would suffer most from any military confrontation in the South China Sea.  

Yet again the mainstream Australian media seem to have missed an extremely important development for our region as it remains mired in parochial domestic politics and the Trump phenomenon ! Over the weekend the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party (Nguyen Phu Trong) accompanied by the Vietnamese Minister of Defence (Ngo Xuan Lich) paid an exceptionally high level visit to China where they met with members of the Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee including General Secretary Xi Jin Ping and Premier Li Kegiang. While Chinese and Vietnamese media reports of the visits (not all that surprisingly) differ they all made clear from official briefings that the South China Sea was the main issue discussed.

According to Chinese media the joint communique was the most comprehensive and high level agreement between the two countries in recent years. Chinese commentators acknowledged that previous bilateral agreements had been “difficult to implement” and that this one pledged both sides ‘ to manage maritime differences and protect peace and stability in the South China Sea.’ Probably most telling of all was the comment of a senior Chinese academic (no doubt well briefed) that ‘Vietnam had realised that confrontation with China yields nothing’ and that ‘cooperation between China and Vietnam will become more significant after US President–elect Trump takes office and US influence (in the South China Sea) diminishes’.

According to the Saigon Times the visit was very successful in strengthening bilateral cooperation across a wide range of areas ( 15 agreements were signed). The Vietnamese reporting laid on thick the usual fraternal accolades and then mentioned the South China Sea agreements in (not surprisingly) much more cautious terms :

Regarding East Sea issues, General Secretary Trong asserted Vietnam’s consistent stance of persistently dealing with East Sea issues by peaceful means, in compliance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and with respect to diplomatic and legal processes, fully and efficiently executing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) and striving together with ASEAN to adopt a “Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC) soon.

History will tell of course just what has been agreed but the timing of the visit (presumably initiated by the Chinese) was immaculate. However weasel worded the Vietnamese version is the visit leaves little doubt that China essentially now has tied up the three main ASEAN claimants – the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Indonesia has made it abundantly clear that they do not regard themselves as a claimant and Brunei is not significant. And this in response to the latest outbursts from Washington only last week.

It also means much for Australia as it is now clear for all to see that the only potential US “ally” for any US confrontation in the region could be Australia. China has successfully wedged the ASEAN’s in through their common concern that it would be them that would suffer most from any military confrontation in the South China Sea. More than just being inveigled into navigation operations around the Chinese-claimed islands we must expect that the new US administration probably will have in mind dragooning us into whatever other military operations in the South China Sea that they might contemplate – such as disallowing contact between China and the islands! On top of which (as I pointed out some time ago) we will become under more intense pressure to allow Darwin and the NT to develop US facilities which will equate to a base despite whatever camouflage wording might be designed in Canberra. The chances of the US being able to base major military operations out of ASEAN ports (other than to a limited extent Singapore) are slim.

But more worryingly, if the new US administration carries through with even some of its threats this inevitably will lead to problems for the US with most of ASEAN. There has been a growing tendency in Washington and Canberra to see most countries in the region as being “onside” if not strictly “allies”. That no longer will be the case if the US (and Australia) step up military operations in the South China Sea. Tensions will be bound to arise for the US. Australia needs to recognise that this alone will impact on the regional environment and our direct national interest there.

And all the more. if we are asked by the US or volunteer to help mediate in any tensions. That is why the point made by Geoff Miller about the need for Australia to increase urgently its profile in the region by a series of very high level visits by the Prime Minister down at political rather than defence levels is so relevant. Talking directly with regional leaders – and particularly listening to their views first hand – and the symbolism that would accompany such a move are essential preparations for the next year or so. As we did consistently in past years. Phone calls, emails and twitter are no substitute in a region where personal networking is so central. All of which also would strengthen our hand in dealing with the new US Administration.

Mack Williams is a former Ambassador to the Philippines. 


Mack Williams former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.

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