Australian and Chinese warships recently had what has been called a robust but polite encounter in the South China Sea. This was always likely and the Australian Government has been correct in not over-reacting. Rather than unnecessarily confronting China, Australia should be sensitive to the views of its Southeast Asian neighbours.
According to a recent media report, three Australian warships have been robustly challenged by Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea. The report was attributed to an un-named Defence source. It’s assumed the source was someone in the Defence establishment in Canberra but it might also have been a crew member of one of the ships involved in the incident, all of whom would have been aware of what happened. Naval personnel have mobile phones and access to email, and while their communications may be restricted when at sea, it’s a different story in port. Anyone of the more than five hundred crew members of the three ships could have, intentionally or unintentionally, told someone back in Australia of this incident.
We don’t know where the challenge occurred or what form it took but some deductions can be made. HMA Ships ANZAC and SUCCESS were in Subic Bay for four days 12-16 April while HMAS TOOWOOMBA visited Kota Kinabalu for three days 11-14 April. The three ships then joined up possibly somewhere in the vicinity of the disputed Spratly Islands before arriving in Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City on 19 April. Subic Bay to HCM City would be about two and a half days normal steaming for SUCCESS and ANZAC while Kota Kinabalu to HCM City direct is about two days steaming for TOOWOOMBA. Thus TOOWOOMBA may have first sailed north to join up with the other vessels before heading for HCM City.
This rendezvous may have occurred on 17 April possibly in the vicinity of the Spratly islands, or on 18 April closer to HCM City. The TOOWOOMBA had time to engage in other activities possibly near the Spratlys before joining up with the other units. While not an assertive freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), it may have been an intelligence collection mission to gain information on China’s military activities in the area.
Some contact with Chinese naval vessels would have been expected. The operational instructions to the RAN vessels would have covered this possibility and the contact conducted in accordance with the Code for Unplanned Encounters (CUES) which has been agreed by Australia and China. It may have seemed ‘robust’ but that would not be unusual given the situation in these waters.
China is extremely sensitive to intelligence collection and surveillance operations in these waters. These operations are the most vexed aspect of the differences between China and the US on military activities in China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These activities, which may include intelligence collection and surveillance, are high seas freedoms available in another country’s EEZ. However, they must be conducted with “due regard” to the rights and duties of the coastal state, and they should not involve marine scientific research. Difficulties often arise between China and the US because some American military activities are so-called ‘military surveys’ that are tantamount to marine scientific research.
An earlier incident involving an encounter between Australian and Chines warships occurred in 2001 when a Chinese warship challenged three Australian navy ships in the Taiwan Strait. The Australian vessels declined to change course, saying they were exercising their right to free navigation in accordance with the laws of the sea. Subsequently Prime Minister Howard said the warships were in international waters and conducting themselves according to international law. He stressed that the incident should be kept in perspective. Australia, he said, would not be overreacting to it, adding there had been a long-standing difference between China’s interpretation of what international law allowed in such situations and the interpretations held by other countries.
The response of Prime Minister Turnbull to the recent incident in the South China Sea has been similar to that of his predecessor in 2001. He has been right not to over-react. His government has also been right not to undertake assertive FONOPS in the South China Sea like those undertaken by the US. It has also been right to continue to point out that Australian warships routinely sail through and in the South China Sea– and has done so for many years. Intelligence collection and surveillance are a routine part of these warships’ operations – as indeed they are of the Operation Gateway patrols that have been conducted over the South China Sea by RAAF aircraft more than thirty years.
Australia has a strategic interest in knowing what’s going on in the South China Sea. But this is not because of the amount of Australia’s overseas trade crossing the sea, which is often over-stated. Rather our interests lie in the broader political and economic stability of the region. In determining policy towards the South China Sea, Australia needs to pay attention not just to relations with China as our major trading partner and to the US as our major strategic partner, but also to the views of our close neighbours in Southeast Asia. Australia and the US may be great allies, but our agendas in the South China Sea are different.
Southeast Asian countries are rarely critical now of China for its actions, and mostly welcome Chinese initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Most don’t share American views on liberal freedoms of navigation. They recognize the reality of China’s ascendancy in the region, the declining influence of the US, and the economic opportunities that China provides. They don’t like activities that ‘rock the boat’ unnecessarily in the South China Sea. And Australia should avoid rocking that boat wherever possible.
Sam Bateman is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong. He is a former senior Australian naval officer who had several commands at sea.