Australia in the South China Sea: time to act, not react
30 May 2016|

The rapidly changing strategic landscape in the South China Sea threatens to marginalise Australia unless the government takes positive action now to remain a relevant and influential player in the region’s strategic calculus. Positive action includes taking a much more visible and unqualified stance against Chinese territorial aggrandisement and invitations to regional powers to create a coordinated maritime domain security and surveillance regime. Perhaps most importantly, Australia must direct the ADF to undertake concrete measures (including independent FONOPs) to demonstrate that despite political differences with the current and at least one potential future US administration, Oz can be relied upon to uphold the globally accepted set of norms embodied in the phrase ‘rules-based international order.’

The passage by USS William P. Lawrence on May 10 within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef reinforced statements by the US government that it won’t be deterred from sailing where international law allows. China’s military overreaction similarly reinforced its determination to oppose any attempt to thwart its goal of exclusive regional domination. Quartz’s Steve Mollman is just the latest commentator to predict that China’s actions are part of a concerted plan to initiate a war with the US at a time and place of its choosing.

As part of this plan, China has embarked upon a systematic campaign to intimidate other SCS nations into submission through a series of orchestrated confrontations with its maritime militias (disguised as fishing vessels), backed up by a ‘coast guard’ whose vessels are far superior in range and weaponry to anything comparable among its near neighbors. By doing so, China seeks to neuter in advance any possible support for US provocations against China’s continued pursuit of military domination of the South China Sea.

Xi’s strategy aims to de-legitimise US claims that it’s acting on behalf of the international system. China refuses to acknowledge the utility and efficiency of multilateral negotiations and arbitration. Instead, it demands that each of its neighbors undertake bilateral negotiations. In such a scenario, China’s overwhelming economic penetration of nations like Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia acts as a surrogate for military threats (which are, in any event, thinly veiled).

Just last fortnight a potentially fatal gap opened in what had previously appeared to be regional solidarity against China. The victory of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines’ presidential election bodes ill for all who hope to present a united oppositional front to Chinese aggression. Duterte’s statements (to say nothing of his actual record) make Donald Trump look like a choirboy; indeed, ‘Duterte Harry’, an unprincipled opportunist, may well pre-emptively yield his nation’s claims ahead of the soon-to-be-announced ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (and its security), thus making the Philippines the first Chinese tributary state in over a century.

Australia must counter that potentiality now. The threads are there; the only thing missing is the skilled weaver to craft a seamless cloak to bolster the security of the ‘nearer region’ and the Indo–Pacific in general.

First, Australia must step up and offer to lead—or at least be a principal player—in the newly-announced Indonesia–Malaysia–Philippines maritime security patrol program. Although targeted solely at transnational crime (for now, anyway), with time and experience this could become the nucleus of a regional collective maritime security framework that could credibly deter or confront China’s maritime militia and coast guard.

Second, Australia should market its next generation of offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. If each of those nations commit to purchasing six to ten OPVs, that would more than double the number of ships to be built in Australian shipyards. Since defence jobs remain a critical component of the upcoming federal election, an early statement in support of such efforts would allay workforce and economists’ fears of a jobless defence expansion. That will require more finesse that the government has recently shown, but will be critical as doing so holds the potential for direct competition with Japan. The Abe government has actively sought to bolster the surface maritime security capabilities of both Vietnam and the Philippines. If Australia could broker US financial assistance to one or more potential purchasers, that would also contribute to enhancing Australia’s reputation for proactive support of US policies vis-à-vis the South China Sea.

Alternatively, Australia could arrange for the transfer of the Armidale-class OPVs to one or more regional partners once RAN’s new OPVs enter service. Either eventuality helps build interoperability with important neighbors and enhances their own ability to fend off challenges by ‘little green fishermen’ from China—as well as reduce the threat of transnational crime.

Finally, Australia must demonstrate a more robust commitment to the enforcement of globally accepted norms for interstate behavior than has been the case up until now. The measures outlined in the opening paragraph above would be a good start. Restricting action to tepidly urging China to resolve its differences peaceably may reassure those who are more focused on economic than national security concerns, but does nothing to reassure neighbors and allies that Australia will match rhetoric with action should circumstances dictate.

The time may soon arrive when Australia will no longer have the luxury of choosing how to respond. Better that the domestic and international groundwork is well laid now than to have to do so in the midst of an international crisis, when reasoned arguments often fall victim to fear and anger.