Fresh on the heels of the Chinese invasion of Vanuatu that wasn’t, febrile minds have been seized by the headline-grabbing story of a Chinese navy “confrontation” with the Royal Australian Navy. The Prime Minister was quickly ready in London to assert Australia’s right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Well, I suppose that’s more fun for Mr Turnbull than talking about his role in the battle against the banking royal commission. But before the usual Sinophobe chorus orders all hands on deck and an issue of rum, it might be worth keeping the “confrontation” in perspective.
Warships being challenged by China – as in being asked “who the hell are you and what do you think you’re doing here?” – is now expected. The Royal Australian Navy has its response learned off by heart. And it’s more about Beijing’s longer-term legal strategy than imminent cannon fire. They reply with words to the effect of: “Hello. We’re HMAS Howsyafather exercising our right of innocent passage”.
I know this because I’ve asked a couple of people who’ve actually done it, not relied on an anonymous defence individual talking a little vaguely about a “robust but polite” challenge and not fully explaining it, either by omission or commission. That can lead to further debatable language along the lines of our ships being “confronted”.
The RAAF has the same answer down pat when it plays its part in the South China Sea game. It’s unfortunate indeed that the boundary testing in the region has come to this, but it’s nowhere near time to start digging bomb shelters.
Deeply cynical types might wonder about the timing. The robust politeness happened “earlier this month” but now comes to light a week after the Vanuatu shock-horror wharf has faded away and when the government would love to be talking about something as dependable (for it) as national security and such.
China is behaving boorishly in the South China Sea, unnecessarily pressuring its neighbours as it copies the behaviour of history’s other ascendant powers instead of being smarter. Through the ritual of challenging foreign ships, China hopes to assert a degree of jurisdiction over what are now international waters. That’s why foreign navies carefully reply with legal language indicating otherwise. China won’t be able to turn up in an international court in a decade’s time with a log showing HMAS Howsyafather acknowledged entering Chinese territory or any such construct.
It’s poor form by Beijing. It could achieve so much more by playing nicely, but there’s no historical template for that. Pick a major power, any major power, and they’ve thrown their weight around with their neighbours, sometimes disastrously. It’s easy to point out the hypocrisy of the forces who would contain China. Anyone for the illegal American invasion of Iraq that we supported? Or, in the realm of seizing or building islands, don’t forget the US still occupies part of Cuba.
While it’s reasonable to try to hold China to the international rules as they stand, whipped up China Peril headlines do Australia and Australian businesses no favours. It was bemusing to watch the Fairfax Media CHINA INVADING VANUATU story wither over the course of a week to sources “confirmed high-level concern in Canberra” that China has “the ambition” of a military presence in Vanuatu. Concern about a possible ambition. And I have an ambition to win Oz Lotto.
And you know the thing about the vast South Pacific? There’s nothing much there. You’d have to have an overblown idea of Australia’s importance to think anyone desperately wants to control the Pacific approaches to this middle power.
Our relationship with China is too important to be the plaything of alarmists and barrow-pushers. To a hammer, everything is a nail. To a certain breed of defence sources, China is always a military threat. And when our de facto commander-in-chief is a lunatic increasingly surrounding himself with Sinophobes and warmongers, it would pay to play a carefully nuanced long-term game ourselves.
Michael Pascoe, a veteran of more than four decades in print, broadcast and online journalism, is a business and economics contributing editor for Fairfax Media.
First published in The New Daily, 20 April 2018.