Playing defence Mini-Me for the US will cost Australia dearly

May 15, 2024
Relations between two countries. USA and Australia flags.

The complaint by Canberra about the latest Chinese military flare-up close to China’s coast is not only hypocritical but highly escalatory.

An Australian MH-60R Seahawk helicopter was 8,535km from home and flew close to China’s northeastern coasts. So a Chinese warplane shot flares to warn it off.

Suppose a Chinese military aircraft flew 8,535km to loiter off Australia’s northern coastlines, how would you think the Australian military, or for that matter, American military stationed in the vicinity, would respond?

So far, the patriotic hand-wringing of the Australian media and political class has been over the top. It would have been amusing if not for its alarming implications for regional security in Asia.

It’s unclear exactly what the Seahawk was doing in China’s neighbourhood. Various excuses have been offered by its government and the military. It was there to enforce United Nations sanctions against North Korea. It was there to help the Australian navy to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters. So, which is it or both?

Beijing says the helicopter was there for spying, as its model is designed to track and detect submarine activities. Canberra has denied it, but the Chinese are not being paranoid.

Australia’s absurdly expensive and take-forever-to-deliver nuclear-powered subs under the Aukus military alliance are designed not so much to defend the country’s immediate coastlines but to “forward-project” power in the South China Sea.

But forget all that “he says, she says”. What ordinary citizens of both countries and non-military types, such as yours truly, may reasonably be concerned about is why Australia considers it justified to conduct military activities within China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), defined as an area of waters extending up to 200 nautical miles or 370km from the coast.

It’s generally accepted that countries can exercise freedom of navigation and overflight through each other’s EEZs without prior notice.

But there is intense disagreement over whether military activities are allowed.

It has long been the position of China, and India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, that they are not. These countries are all signatories to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), under which the EEZ definition is codified. However, the United States has never signed on to UNCLOS. That doesn’t prevent it from interpreting UNCLOS as allowing free military activities in others’ EEZs.

Interestingly, Washington’s “no military restrictions” interpretation of EEZs only seems to apply to other countries.

Consider the case of notionally independent Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. They are in effect American protectorates and are increasingly being exploited as military assets for Aukus.

Under the so-called Compact of Free Association, the US has long taken up their territorial defence. More recently, though, the Pentagon claims that the US military will protect and patrol their EEZs as well, meaning it can bar any foreign vessels from entering them, military or not!

Does the US apply the same prerogative over its own territorial EEZs? I am not aware that Washington has made any official statement to that effect, as that would contradict the entitlement of its own military to enter other people’s EEZs.

However, I would bet a lot of money that there are classified legal documents that sanction EEZ defence against foreign intrusions.

While Australia may not have a similar military doctrine that bars others from entering its EEZs, even for military purposes, I would also bet a lot of money that it won’t tolerate such intrusions, especially from China, to areas near its military bases and installations, such as those in Darwin, Brisbane, Newcastle and Port Kembla. The same goes with Australia-controlled Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which are being militarised against international law.

If you look at the bigger picture, you can see how Australia’s complaint about the latest Chinese flare-up is not only hypocritical, but highly escalatory.

By being America’s defence Mini-Me, the country is also painting a big target on its back.

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