Decoding Australia’s Strange Silence Over China’s Transgressions in the South China Sea

Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper strongly advocates the geostrategic concept of the Indo-Pacific and the global rules-based order. In its first comprehensive guide-book for international engagement in 14 years, Canberra makes the case for an Indo-Pacific of openness, prosperity, and inclusiveness. Of note, the term Indo-Pacific appears more than 70 times in the document. The White Paper signals the country’s increased engagement with the Southeast Asian region in the context of China’s assertive pursuit of regional influence and territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

Australian policymakers have paid increased attention to developments in the South China Sea since the early 2010s. Canberra maintains that the country does not take sides in the dispute, though it quietly opposes China’s nine-dash line claim. As the White Paper clearly asserts, the stability of the South China Sea and the maritime rule-based order constitute part of Australia’s substantial interests. Australia strongly promotes the respect of international maritime treaty law as embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982). As such, it advocates freedom of navigation and overflight, the amicable settlement of disputes, and, most currently, the Arbitral Tribunal’s 2016 award on the South China Sea in Philippines v. China.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne reasserted the common line that “Australia will continue to act in accordance with international law. Our ships, our aircraft, will operate in the South China Sea, as they have for decades, consistent with the rights of freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. We will also continue to strongly support the right of others to exercise these rights.” The Royal Australian Navy has exercised freedom of navigation and overflight patrols for decades through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea as an important means to uphold international maritime law.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.Canberra consistently calls for self-restraint, the non-use of force, the amicable management of disputes, and a halt to artificial island construction and military build-ups by all parties in the South China Sea. Canberra calls out China for its “unprecedented pace and scale” of constructing military outposts along the crucial trade routes connecting Indian and Pacific Oceans.

A Deafening Silence

The Australian government and the country’s main media outlets have been relatively quiet about China’s transgressions in the South China Sea in the last few months. In the meantime, three Southeast Asian claimant states this year have been subjected to China’s intrusions into their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the past few months. China’s actions in the South China Sea are an obvious breach of the rules-based order.

China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels, especially, the Haijing 35111, repeatedly hampered oil exploitation operations by Malaysia and Vietnam since early May. In June, a Chinese vessel rammed a Philippine trawler and abandoned its crew of 22 members. China has deployed hundreds of ships surrounding the Philippine-occupied Thitu Island when Manila started to construct a beaching ramp in late 2018.

Most seriously, China deployed the Haiyang Dizhi 8 in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank, which is completely inside Vietnam’s EEZ violating UNCLOS. As Carl Thayer observed, though less intense than the HYSY 981 oil rig incident in 2014, this time China sent up to 40 ships of all types to the area to protect the Haiyang Dizhi 8. China’s giant survey ship engaged in illegal seismic research in Vietnam’s maritime waters for several weeks before departing on the 7th of August. According to Jay Batongbacal, the Haiyang Dizhi 8 came as close as 100 nm to Vietnam’s coast line. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts reportedly returned to Vietnam’s EEZ for oil and gas surveying on 13 August.

To no surprise, the U.S. strongly criticized China’s coercive behavior. Unfortunately, its allies in the region did not compatibly follow up in calling out China’s destabilizing activities. Australia has displayed a relatively weak response to China’s provocations. There have been no official direct comments from Canberra. In addition, there was little news coverage about the developments. Both the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue Joint Ministerial Statement (August 1, 2019) and the Joint Statement of the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) (August 4, 2019) do not specifically mention China’s transgressions in the South China Sea. However, it should be noted that both statements highlight the shared concern about “disruptive activities in relation to long-standing oil and gas projects” in the South China Sea.

It was only after an op-ed by Andrew Hastie MP that precipitated robust discussions about Australia’s foreign policy towards China. Hastie’s op-ed called for rethinking about the country’s terms of engagement with China. The opinion piece by Hastie, the chairman of the Australian Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, provoked an immediate reaction because it was not in tune with Australian government’s policy. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, for example, argued that Hastie’s views are not helpful to the national interests. However, as Batongbacal opined on his Facebook page, most people do not understand the implications of China’s activities within Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf. China’s actions reflect Beijing’s illegitimate claim to a ‘nine-dash line’ claim over the South China Sea and its continued rejection of the South China Sea ruling three years ago.

Explaining Canberra’s Silence

Australia’s quietness is easily explained. For decades the country’s foreign policy was based on (1) the dominant U.S. presence and active engagement in the region and (2) Australia’s economic interdependence with China. Given China’s economic leverage, Australia generally avoids trying to upset China. Canberra maintains that its national interests is not to escalate tensions in the South China Sea.

China replaced Japan in 2007 as Australia’s largest trading partner and has remained in that position ever since. China has also ranked first among Australia’s export markets since 2009. In 2017, bilateral trade reached $183.4 billion accounting for 24 percent of Australian total trade. Australian exports of goods to China total $116 billion. ASEAN, Japan and the U.S. follow with 13.7, 9.4, and 9.0 percent, respectively.

Moreover, Canberra must have closely watched with great concern the repercussions of the steady trade war between the U.S. and China. Due to the U.S.-China currency war, the Australian dollar (AUD) has dropped to its lowest point in a decade. The Australian stock market also lost $90 billion just two days after the escalation in the trade war.

Given the leverage of the world’s two largest economies, Australia should expect to encounter additional uncertainty. However, one should be concerned about Canberra’s strange silence over China’s intimidation against littoral states in the South China Sea. As Christopher Roberts observed, the West’s “too little, too late” response to China’s activities in the South China Sea in the first half of 2010s has left irreversible after-effects.

China has indeed effectively established a fait accompli or new status quo in the area by militarizing seven artificial islands. One should recall that U.S. Admiral Philip Davidson bitterly observed in 2018, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

Security matters the same way economic interests do. In the last few years, Canberra has had to act in an attempt to neutralize China’s worrisome footprint in the South Pacific. As Australian strategist Hugh White prudently warns, China’s increased influence in the South Pacific will threaten Australia’s sphere of influence and foreign policy autonomy. It was rumored that China sought to have Pacific naval bases in Vanuatu and Tonga which are approximately 2000 km from the Australian coast. If this is the case, China could project its blue navy globally thanks to an emerging network of bases in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. As such, it imposes greater costs on Australia to independently defend the country against China as Hugh White extrapolates.

The advent of a new port in Darwin in the future to facilitate the rotation of U.S. marines in the Australia’s Northern Territory exemplifies Canberra’s strategic security ties with Washington. One may still anticipate the deployment of B-1 long range bombers and ground-based missiles in Darwin, though so far Canberra has not shown much public interest.

In a nutshell, Canberra has managed to maintain a balanced approach to the South China Sea dispute. However, by remaining silent about China’s recent transgressions in the South China Sea may lead Beijing to misconstrue Australia’s commitment to a rules-based order. As Benjamin Schreer recently recommendedCanberra should take a more proactive strategic stance in the South China Sea.

Tuan Anh Luc is a PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra (UNSW Canberra).

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