South China Sea and Australia
The South China Sea disputes have entered a dangerous new phase in the last several years. Alongside China’s unprecedented construction and fortification of artificial features, incidents at sea involving clashes between various combinations of fishermen, coast guards and, occasionally, naval assets, are occurring on a routine basis. With the nationalist credentials of authoritarian and democratically-elected claimant governments at stake, the potential for miscalculation and escalation (whether inadvertent or intended) is growing.
Australia’s aspirations for a viable ‘rules-based’ strategic order in the Indo-Pacific are under significant pressure as regional powers contest the very nature and scope of these rules via the disputes. Key Australian interests and relationships are being tested.
Approximately two thirds of Australia’s exports pass through the South China Sea and the island corridors north of Australia. Any internal or external conflicts between countries can directly impact upon the prosperity of Australia.
Australia’s position on the South China Sea remains pragmatic, unchanged over the last few years.
Australia’s position adheres to the same oft-repeated formulation: Australia urges claimants to act in accordance with international law, to avoid coercive behaviour and unilateral actions, to engage in dialogue and to reach a resolution through peaceful means. Australia has also been consistent in asserting support for states’ rights under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. Australia itself remains committed to regularly conducting maritime surveillance patrols of the South China Sea, as it has done for over 30 years as part of Operation Gateway, despite being routinely challenged by the Chinese Navy.
The argument as to whether Australia needs to make a choice between its major economic partner, China, and its primary security partner, the US, has been central to discussions about Australia’s security and economic interests in recent years.
Australia’s national interests in the South China Sea are defined as primarily economic and security related, that is, economic in terms of Australian trade passing through the South China Sea, and security related in terms of supporting a continued US presence in the Asia Pacific as a stabilizing influence representing the existing, rules-based global order.
The prospects for the future development of economic relations between Australia and ASEAN are very substantial but their realization will depend crucially on the maintenance of stability and security in Southeast Asia and in Asia more widely. Two issues in political and security relations have recently been of particular concern for ASEAN and Australia—the contest for influence in the South China Sea and the ongoing dangers from terrorism, highlighted in 2017 by the five-month-long conflict in the Philippine city of Marawi.
In relation to the South China Sea, the Australian Government has consistently noted that Australia is not a claimant state and does not take sides in relation to claims. Australia has emphasized the desirability of dialogue and negotiation; opposes artificial modifications or militarization of islands or features in the Sea; supports freedom of navigation and over-flight; and supports a legally-binding code of conduct. Australia has reiterated its approach at recent meetings of ASEAN and the East Asia Summit. The Australian Government’s position was reaffirmed in its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper (released in November 2017).
Australia and the South China Sea: debates and dilemmas
Australian Foreign Policy White Paper
Australia and the South China Sea
Australia’s National Interest
ASEAN-Australia (Special Summit, March 2018)
Jorge Emilio Núñez
20th September 2018