An international court’s ruling against China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea has reignited long-simmering debate here about how to counter growing Chinese assertiveness while balancing crucial ties with both Beijing and Washington.
Australia’s reaction to Tuesday’s ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration reflects a delicate middle course it is charting as it weighs its own interests alongside its conflicting relations with the United States and China, its main defense ally and biggest trading partner, respectively.
While emphasizing its right to navigate the waters, which facilitate trillions of dollars in global trade, the Liberal Party-led conservative coalition played down the likelihood of emulating Washington’s more aggressive stance on Beijing’s claims.
Freshly-reelected Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Tuesday’s ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague should be respected as one made in “accordance with international law,” while Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made it clear that Australia would “exercise its international legal rights of freedom of navigation and overflight, as we have done for decades.”
Edgy about naval patrols?
But Australia’s top diplomat stopped sort of endorsing patrols within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands, a tactic Washington has used to show it doesn’t recognize them as Chinese territory.
Responding to calls for the more confrontational approach by opposition defense spokesman Stephen Conroy, a member of the center-left Labor Party, Bishop said such a move would be “irresponsible” and inevitably escalate tensions.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang nevertheless claimed to be a “bit shocked” at the “wrong remarks” out of Canberra.
Euan Graham, director of international security at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute of International Policy, noted the context of the relatively “sober” political reaction internationally, including from the Philippines, the victorious claimant in the judgment.
“So I think Australia needs to take its cue from that to a large extent, and I think the overriding interest at the moment is to actually not rub Beijing’s face in it,” Graham told Asia Times. “I think the work of the ruling has done enough — it was such an emphatic victory for the Philippines.”
It made sense for Australia and other countries to wait to see how the ruling would play out before pursuing any aggressive policy change, Graham said.
“It’s a new administration in Manila, inexperienced, and I think that bodes for caution on their side,” he said. “So it’s just not really realistic to expect that Australia would suddenly sort of jump in in a physical military sense in the South China Sea when everyone else is hanging back.”
In its ruling, the UN-supported arbitration panel said that Beijing had violated the sovereignty of the Philippines through its island-building project and that its claims over huge swathes of ocean had no legal or historical basis.
Apart from countries in the region such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, western nations including the US and Australia have opposed China’s expansionism with arguments about maintaining the openness of one of the world’s most important routes for trade and transit.
While Canberra has voiced support for Washington’s approach to the dispute, it has so far taken a softer line in practice, at least publicly.
The Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australia Air Force carry out regular patrols in the area, but are not known to have breached the sensitive 12-mile radius around the artificial islands, which Beijing has used to extend its jurisdiction over waters also claimed by a number of Southeast Asian countries.
Friction with allies
Graham said the remarks of visiting US military officials had indicated that Washington likely felt it was “effectively left to do all the difficult work while all of the allies can effectively free ride on that while making nice diplomatic noises, but without having to take the physical risks or political risks in terms of their relationship with China.”
“From that I gather maybe not all is hunky dory within the alliance on this issue, that there may be beginnings of internal frictions because Australia will be at the top of the shortlist of potential allies,” he said.
Some Australians have called for a tougher approach to Chinese assertions of dominance — and not just those on the typically opportunistic opposition benches.
“What has not happened, as far as I am aware — and which should happen – is an assertion of the ability to conduct naval operations — that is, do military stuff — within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built on a feature which does not generate a territorial sea — in which case the artificial feature has the right only to a 500 meter safety zone,” said James Goldrick, a former senior officer in the Royal Australian Navy.
Goldrick said there were already signs that Beijing had been overcome with arrogance.
“I find it significant that when China has a major naval exercise which includes weapon firings, as it has just conducted in the South China Sea, its public notices directly prohibit entry to the declared areas of the high seas,” he said.
“When nations like Australia conduct such exercises, the notice to mariners concerned requests that other ships keep clear. I am increasingly of the view that China has a fundamental problem understanding the meaning — and importance — of ‘please.’ ”
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia.