Australia must speak carefully and carry a big enough stick in the South China Sea
3 Aug 2022|

Australia’s recent change of government provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the problems of the South China Sea and the way ahead for our national policies. In a sense, the clear continuity between the approach of the last government and, so far, that of Labor confirms the need to consider matters both in their wider strategic context and for the long term. As a strategic problem, the South China Sea isn’t going to go away.

Why does the South China Sea matter for Australia? Because to accept China’s claims to it not only undermines fundamental elements of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea but acquiesces to Chinese coercion through the use of armed force. Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and its more recent attack on Ukraine are compelling examples of what uncontested ‘learned bad behaviour’ can go on to become.

Australia must be there for the long haul. It needs to assert its independent national interests and its national presence in the region. On the other hand, Australia must work not only with the United States but, and this will be increasingly important, its regional (and extra-regional) partners to minimise its and their vulnerabilities and maximise the pressure on China.

The South China Sea is as much a contest of information and ideas as a cockpit of at-sea and in-the-air encounters. For Australia, that contest has both domestic and international aspects. Continuing education of a shore-bound and ground-based—and sometimes less than expert—media and commentariat will be required to inform the Australian public. Australia’s strategic narrative must highlight its commitment to a stable region, why that commitment matters and its record in building and supporting it.

Making an effective case for the South China Sea not to become a ‘closed sea’ is fundamental. So are clarity and consistency. Most notably, distinctions between ‘shadowing’ and ‘harassment’ must be made clear. The People’s Liberation Army Navy and China’s maritime air arms have just as much a right to range freely as our own forces. Australian and allied units can expect to be monitored by Chinese ships anywhere within the ‘first island chain’ and possibly elsewhere, but if the Chinese presence doesn’t interfere with our operations, it must be not only regarded but openly acknowledged as legitimate. As should be any professionally conducted shadowing of Chinese units by Australian forces in our own areas of interest.

Only when PLA units operate in an unsafe way or prevent our forces from carrying out their intended operations should loaded terms such as ‘harassment’ and ‘aggression’ be employed. To be fair, since 2018 it appears the PLA Navy has generally conducted itself responsibly on and below the surface. It’s no coincidence that the 2014 Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a document accepted by China, speaks of ‘Actions the prudent commander might generally avoid’, something that has not been agreed for China’s maritime militia units or, potentially most critically, units of the PLA’s air arms. Recent events have highlighted the special potential for encounters in the air to go badly wrong, with serious, immediate and potentially fatal consequences. An aircraft falling out of the sky is a more serious matter than ships riding each other off.

Australia’s operational and tactical concepts must thus encompass worst-case scenarios. The need for cover—that is, to have forces of sufficient capability and/or in reasonable proximity to deter aggressive actions—is a key consideration. There have been calls for different approaches to asserting Australia’s presence. Such ideas have merit, although implementation would be very complex, particularly those involving closer cooperation with some of the littoral states.

Contingency plans must be ready for when things do go wrong. In particular, the information components of such plans must come into play straight away. Getting the message out to the world about Chinese aggression cannot wait. China was clearly blindsided by the speed with which the Americans uploaded critical video footage to the internet after the USNS Impeccable incident in 2009, footage which made clear that the Chinese fishing boats involved were provocateurs and not victims of the American surveillance ship. Commanders need to have the authority to publish such video evidence without delay. Arguably, airborne units should be transmitting audio and video at all times.

China itself must be a target of our educational effort. Its attempts to paint Australia’s presence in the South China Sea as alien and aggressive must be constantly refuted. A regime which has made so much of the centenary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party cannot lightly dismiss Australia’s record over much the same period, however ancient China’s civilisation. Also, considering that Darwin is closer to Singapore than is Shanghai, our arguments need not only to emphasise the realities of geography but the interaction between those realities and our security and economic interests as a regional power.

At a time when Chinese scholars are beginning to recognise and lament the atrophy of the time-honoured Chinese virtue of prudence in China’s approach to international affairs, its notable absence in the PLA’s air arms in particular needs to be pointed out. Dangerous behaviour in the air should be described with the scorn it deserves.

The Australian narrative needs to be promulgated in Mandarin and Cantonese as well as in Southeast Asian languages and made as accessible as possible. Australia’s position must be explained and the inconsistences and outright mendacity of much of the Chinese ‘case’ made clear. This information campaign must not only be focused on the strategic level but extend to the operational and tactical.

Finally, Australia cannot sustain a case for the legitimacy of its operations in the South China Sea and other regions if it is as careless with commentary over China’s sallies into Australia’s maritime zones as the then defence minister was during the federal election campaign. Perhaps our requirement can best be described by paraphrasing Theodore Roosevelt. In South China Sea matters, Australia needs to speak carefully and carry a big enough stick.