Upping the ante in the South China Sea?
10 Mar 2016|

The US Navy’s
USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group has recently concluded a five-day ‘routine patrol’ in the South China Sea. Accompanied by several US vessels based in Japan, at first glance it appears that Admiral Harry Harris’ congressional testimony two weeks ago was the opening bell in a new round of military responses to continued Chinese provocations. That perception is reinforced in light of Harris’ call to resurrect Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2007 proposal of a four-democracy naval convention to police the South China Sea and deter any who sought to ‘bully smaller nations through intimidation and coercion’. As great as China’s fear of a military powerful Japan is, perhaps even worse from Beijing’s perspective is the inclusion of USS Ashland in the Stennis group. Ashland is an amphibious docking vessel with the capability to support an amphibious assault by a Marine landing team on, say, a small islet such as Fiery Cross Reef.

The Obama Administration doesn’t rattle sabres very well, however. In fact, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s lone attempt at doing so failed miserably. It’s also struggled to devise a workable response to China’s aggressive expansionism in the SCS. Thus, although ‘Johnny Reb’s’ arrival appears supremely well timed, it’s far more likely that it was planned weeks earlier to deflect criticism and reassure allies and regional partners. As should’ve been expected, China’s foreign minister lost no time in condemning the US presence and concluding his remarks with a veiled threat that ‘history will prove who is merely the guest and who is the host’.

As Australia’s recently released Defence White Paper states, Australia’s security depends in part on how China and the US resolve their disagreements. Therefore, it’s well worth every Australian’s time to consider just what the stakes are in the South China Sea. Although the White Paper dismisses the likelihood of an invasion of the Australian homeland, it emphatically doesn’t claim that regional war is unlikely and is, contra Hugh White, not short on ‘credible analysis’ of the breadth of challenges facing the region today.

Two facts underline this difference. First, all three of the White Paper’s Strategic Defence Interests encompass facets of the ongoing territorial disputes in the SCS. The reality of interstate competition cannot be denied, nor can the possibility be ignored that competition could easily become conflict. Second, the vast majority of the acquisition program laid out in both the DWP and the Investment Strategy involve end-items required for success in a potential maritime conflict. Surveillance and combat aircraft, surface warships (especially the Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers), advanced submarines, and additional intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance, cyber, and space-based enablers all facilitate execution of operations beyond the confines of Australia’s land area. In other words, the DWP’s analysis abandons any attempt at rose-coloured-glasses optimism and identifies a rising China as the paramount challenge to regional order and stability. The Chinese government, as expected, lost no time in impugning the Turnbull Government’s motives.

Domestic critics of ADF expansion claim a ‘lack of debate’ surrounds government’s decision to dedicate so much money for defence. While more engagement with the tax-paying public to show them where they’ll receive value for money is a good thing, sceptics are wrong to propose instead unilateral Australian disarmament, an act that would leave Australia economically vulnerable. The Chinese hard-liners, whose nationalist-expansionist imperative Premier Xi Xinping embodies, would view Australian disarmament as an invitation to accelerate their push for domination. Lacking a military option, Australia would become a tributary nation to the 21st century Chinese empire.

Far from being a set of ‘strategic handcuffs,’ ANZUS and a robust ADF protect Australia from Chinese aggression. In 1991 the Philippines declined to renew a basing rights agreement with the United States. In subsequent years the Philippines failed to invest in a replacement for the deterrent force lost when the last US forces left in 1994. Since 2013 Manila has seen a steady increase in the amount of Chinese activity in the Spratly Islands—against which the Armed Force of the Philippines have no effective response. China gives no indication it will heed the pending decision by the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration if, as expected, it rules in favour of the Philippines. So what then?

Australia, like the US, has a fundamental stake in the survival of a rules-based international order by which sovereign states negotiate solutions to their differences. China’s revisionist government has no incentive to moderate its aggression in the SCS without a credible threat of costs imposed by the US and the world community—of which Australia is a critical part. Those costs could include military ones, and lest anyone believe that the US would not put a Nimitz-class air craft carrier at risk for a principle, they should know that military action in defence of ‘freedom of the seas’ is the most powerful continuity in US foreign policy. It resulted in America’s first overseas military action, against the Barbary Pirates during Jefferson’s presidency. It was the most important justification for war against Great Britain less than 10 years later, and was very nearly so again during the Civil War in 1862–1863. Imperial Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 caused an immediate diplomatic break, followed by a declaration of war in April.

Although Southeast Asia and Oceania are still a long way from having to choose between pax Americana and pax Sinica, further Chinese attempts to subvert freedom of navigation within the SCS, or a Chinese disavowal of a Permanent Court ruling against its territorial claims, will require a response (including a potential military option) unless Australians are willing to concede that a rules-based order is not, in fact, a core Australian strategic interest. If that’s the case, then whoever forms a government following the next elections may need another White Paper.