Why is Australia conducting provocative intelligence flights and activities off the China coast in support of the US?

Aug 18, 2022
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

How would Australia react if Chinese ISR (Intelligence ,Surveillance,Reconnaissance) planes were similarly operating off its coast probing its defences and dropping sonobuoys to detect its submarines?

How and why Australia exercises its rights in the South China Sea have become key policy questions. The Albanese administration’s choices could lead to kinetic conflict. The Australian people need to know the rationale behind them.

Like all nations, Australia has a right to a military presence in the South China Sea. But how and why it exercises that right have become key policy questions. Should Australia risk kinetic conflict with China with its aerial intelligence probes along its coast and possible Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) challenging its maritime claims – – all in support of the U.S strategy to contain China?

Why is it doing so? Prominent Australian analyst Rory Medcalf has summarised Australia’s interests in the South China Sea as “rules, balance and lifelines”. He says Australia’s military is there because Australia is a major trading nation, a regional maritime player in international law, a middle power that benefits from the protection of norms and international law, a partner to its Asian neighbours, and an ally of the U.S.”.

Let’s examine these reasons and assess if any of them alone or even together are sufficient to justify the risk of political, economic and military conflict with China.

First of all only about 20% of Australia’s exports pass through the South China Sea –not two thirds as its Defence Department White Paper has it. While still a large chunk, most of this is destined for China and is unlikely to be interrupted by it in peacetime. Further there is an alternative route available between eastern Australia, Japan and South Korea that passes to the east of the Philippines.

More important, China has not threatened freedom of commercial navigation. The idea that it does or might is the result of clever US conflation of the freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom for its military assets to threaten and spy. China does consider some of these latter activities to be violations of the duty proscribed in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to pay due regard to its rights and interests in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS yet enforces its own interpretations thereof. Does Australia really want to risk military conflict with China over this US-conflated and weaponised principle?

Medcalf says Australia is a middle power and an ally of the U.S. But that is the problem. Australia is a middle power only and is risking the ire of a great power – China – on behalf of its ally the U.S. Would Australia be doing this on its own if it weren’t an ally of the U.S.? If not, why is it sticking its neck out? Shouldn’t Australia’s focus be on monitoring and defending its waters and adjacent approaches rather than collecting intelligence along China’s South China Sea coast?

Where Medcalf’s reasoning goes off the rails is the implication that Australia is there to demonstrate its support of norms and international law.

First of all, its ally, the U.S. whom it is supporting and assisting in the South China Sea has not ratified the constitution of the oceans –UNCLOS– that it is using to justify its presence. Moreover Australia is hardly a shining example of conformance with international order. It also violates UNCLOS with its EEZ claim from Heard and McDonald rocks and  its mandatory requirement of pilotage for foreign vessels passing through the Torres Strait. But most embarrassing for Australia in this regard is its outrageous illegal behaviour regarding its maritime boundary dispute with Timor Leste.

Yet in an epitome of hypocrisy Australia’s Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson joined US Secretary of State Department Antony Blinken in urging adherence to UNCLOS.. “Respect for international laws, including UNCLOS is fundamental to peace, prosperity and stability in the region.” While clearly aimed at China, this apply to the U.S. and Australia as well,

Finally, Medcalf cites Australia’s partnership with its Asian neighbours. After the recent dangerous incident between Chinese and Australian warplanes near the China-held Paracel Islands, the Australian Defence Department said that it “has for decades undertaken maritime surveillance activities in the region _ _ _.” The original excuse for the presence of Australian ISR aircraft over the South China Sea is the Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA). . But this has morphed from a pact to protect Malaysia and Singapore after the U.K. withdrawal from the region to one of support for the US effort to contain China.

Moreover, this 1971 Cold War agreement between Australia, U.K., New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore provides only for ‘consultation’ in the event or threat of an armed attack on any party. There is no specific commitment to intervene militarily. The enforcement of a state’s EEZ rights is not mentioned although I suppose the state can ask for assistance in doing so. The FPDA has an Integrated Air Defence System for Malaysia and Singapore based in Butterworth under Australia’s command. While most exercises take place off the coasts of Malaysia and Singapore, some have extended into the South China Sea. However Malaysia’s EEZ clam stops well short of China’s South China Sea coast.

Indeed, the FPDA does not justify Australia’s intelligence collection flights along China’s coast. Moreover Australian Poseiden P8s also operate over the South China Sea from Singapore, Brunei, Manila and Darwin. These flights may be undertaken under the controversial Five Eyes (FVEY). This is an alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. that focuses on sharing of signals intelligence. It originated as an anti-Soviet effort but has greatly expanded its remit. Edward Snowden described FVEY as a “supra-national organisation that does not answer to known laws of its own countries.” It even spies on one another’s citizens to get around domestic prohibitions on such by the members’ own governments. If this is the justification for the Australian ISR probes of China’s defences Australia may wish to reconsider whether it wants to continue to serve as a US proxy in this endeavour.

AUKUS – the agreement between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. to supply nuclear submarine and underwater drone technology to Australia– will eventually make Australia an important player and merge its Navy missions with those of the U.S. in the South China Sea. But that will be as a participant in the US strategy to contain China. This is not part of the FPDA or at the request of the regional countries. Indeed, some are quite opposed to AUKUS as they see it as the beginning of a renewed arms race.

The next step for Australia may be to undertake Freedom of Navigation Operations against China’s claims – either unilaterally or with the U.S. Despite strong US pressure Australia has so far declined to do so. It has good reasons. Doing so could well trigger conflict. This would be the ultimate of supporting an ally – sacrificing itself and its people for it. But the Australian people may not know that the government is risking their welfare to support the US containment strategy. It is one thing to support allies in a war. But it is quite another to help it provoke a war in which it will be one of the first victims.

To Australia this is a matter of principle no matter how confused or conflated. But for China it is matter of destiny. China wants to reestablish control over its maritime backyard after two centuries of colonial domination and abuse. It is part of the fulfillment of its dream of re-establishing regional if not global dominance and respect. Its motivation is much stronger than that of Australia. Moreover, Australia’s remoteness from the area and lack of a direct stake in the disputes render its military assets there a vulnerable target.

Yet Defence Secretary Richard Marles has declared that “Our national interest lies in the East China Sea and the South China Sea in what are the rules of the road – the global rules based order.” He said Australia would continue its ISR probes in the South China Sea. It seems that Australia is bent on poking China in the eye regardless of the consequences.

Perhaps it should consider how it would react if Chinese ISR planes were operating off its coast probing its defences and dropping sonobuoys to detect its submarines? As an indication, in May, then Defence Minister Peter Dutton called the presence of a Chinese intelligence collection ship in its EEZ off Exmouth Naval Base an “aggressive act.”

The situation is becoming increasingly dangerous. There was hope that the Albanese administration would take a more rational longer term view in relations with China. But it has already earned China’s anger by publicly criticising China’s response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

This serious situation raises fundamental questions for the new government. How far should Australia go on behalf of the U.S. in this game of military chicken in the South China Sea?

Australia may be sleepwalking into kinetic conflict with China in the South China Sea. The Albanese government should be clear and honest with its people as to the risks Australia faces and why it is taking them in a Sea so far from its shores.

This piece appeared in Asia Times.

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