South China Sea dispute exposes soft Australia

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Map of South China Sea

The tensions in the South China Sea seem to have finally pierced Australian political consciousness. Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared last Thursday, 'We take no sides in the many territorial disputes in that region but we deplore any unilateral alteration of the status quo'.

Except the status quo changed years ago, when China claimed the entire South China Sea in 1992 based on its so-called nine-dash line.  

The move destabilised multilateral settlements from the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which provides for exclusive economic zones from the coastal baseline. Despite a 2002 code of conduct with ASEAN, there have been confrontations between Chinese vessels and that of other countries in the past five years, disrupting fishing livelihoods in Vietnam and the Philippines.

China has also been creating 'facts on the ground' over the past 18 months to bolster its claim, establishing five military outposts in the Spratlys and building artificial islands. Under UNCLOS, artificial structures on elevations and rocks otherwise submerged at high tide do not constitute sovereignty and are not entitled to maritime zones or airspace.

In other words, while our foreign policy and security rhetoric has tended further afield — Iraq, Syria and Ukraine — the escalation of conflict closer to home has passed without discussion, its intricacies confined within thinktanks and foreign news desks. This has come at the expense of an authoritative engagement with sensitive regional issues, something that is becoming a permanent feature of our foreign policy.

It reflects our habit of ceding initiative to the United States, as well as a reluctance not seen elsewhere to confront illegitimate moves to assert sovereignty. Our politicians may now be vocal, but they are yet to venture further than expressions of neutrality and assertions of international law, which in fact has been flouted in various ways in recent times, not least by Australia.

Few Australians are likely to have pondered the stakes in the north: what it means for China to assert strategic control over international airspace and waters, including potential resource extraction in the South China Sea; how expansionism would affect the dynamics of power not just in East Asia; the extent to which the involvement of the United States and Russia (which itself summarily annexed Crimea last year) will pull allies into the dispute; and whether we have properly canvassed our own options, given this brinkmanship involving our most significant trading partners.

The deterioration in diplomatic language on both sides of the Pacific gives us a sense of the situation. Daniel Russel, the senior US diplomat in East Asia, has been acerbic. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May, he remarked, 'No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can't manufacture sovereignty.'

He was similarly blunt after an incident in which Chinese Navy personnel radioed warnings for an American surveillance plane to leave despite being in international airspace: 'Nobody in their right mind is going to try to stop the US Navy from operating. That would not be a good bet.'

The reaction from China has been equally terse. At a recent forum in Singapore, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, 'The United States disregards history, legal principles and the facts. China's sovereignty and relevant rights were established a long time ago in the South China Sea.'

There is no doubt that nationalist fervour in China supports this framing; any moves beyond rhetoric by the US, Australia or the G7 are regarded with great animosity as containment.

The trajectory of this conflict does not look good. There is no reason to believe that the United States would relinquish its position as an Asia-Pacific security power. There is also no reason to believe that China would slow or halt its island-building and militarisation of the South China Sea. It has refused to participate in legal avenues, particularly the UN arbitration sought by the Philippines.

The high degree of unpredictability is a feature of the tensions; it is impossible to draw a credible analysis of the outcomes. No one wants to be drawn into war, but no one wants a new unilateralist world order, either. Against this ponderous milieu, it is a pity — given its location and heft — that Australia has again been exposed as a lightweight.


Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, South China Sea, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia


 

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Existing comments

I sometimes wonder what the reaction would/will be if/when Chinese surveillance planes begin patrolling international airspace adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico, the Hawaiian Islands or the Coral Sea perhaps. The US’s military presence in just about every corner of the globe invites such a response and I for one am fearful of the consequences for Australia allied as we are to the US’s military adventures.
Paul | 10 June 2015


Well it just goes to show how having the US as our protector and China as our economic saviour can go pear-shaped very quickly. I studied East Asia History at University many years ago. I think I am correct in writing that China has never had any claim to the South China Seas as it lacked the Naval power necessary to enforce such a claim . No doubt Chinse traders have been active in the region since at least the 16th Century, but so have Arab and other groups. Sadly we either go to War over the claims as an ally of the US with a very dubious outcome or we stay "neutral" to protect our trading interests with China and risk a stoush with the US . Either way the lack of involvement in this region, much closer to us than the Middle East, is puzzling to say the least .
Gavin O'Brien | 10 June 2015


Extremely cogent summary of the Australian political machine and of the international outcomes. The flags have been waving frantically from Philippines and Vietnam for years. But we blind ourselves to their sovereign rights in fear that OUR 'level playing field' in trade is more important than their international boundaries. We are found again and again to be kowtowing to the greater military might of political, capitalist and cultural colonists. USA and PRC fit all categories. It is consistent that the predominant political machines of Australia negate the human rights of refugees in an unilateral manner that makes some of our neighbours complicit in human rights abuses that will now be tragically played out for generations in their cultures. For some millions of AUD. Yes, we can seemingly buy ourselves off the hook re these unfortunate individuals, but as your article points out, our political will in respect to being a nation that plays fair (beyond the sporting field) is under developed, and we have, as you say, "again been exposed as a lightweight".
MichCook | 10 June 2015


China has claimed the islands of these seas for centuries and formally reasserted this in 1947 (Chaing Kai-shek) after the defeat of Japan. See: http://vanguard-cpaml.blogspot.com.au/2015/06/anti-chinese-provocations-are-not-in.html
Mike | 11 June 2015


Paul's opening comment is spot on. Remember the U.S. response to Soviet missiles in Cuba?
Ginger Meggs | 12 June 2015


Mike, PRC is constructing bases from atolls by relocating the sea floor to atop these formerly undersea projections. They are claiming these are islands. Not supported by UN or by any historical convention. In other words, illegal.
MichCook | 12 June 2015


china has to be stopped japan has to expand its military to counter the china aggression the u.s.a, and Australia have to support this as a matter of fact and urgently
barry mc hugh | 13 June 2015


To those who want to muscle up to China and do a bit of shirt-fronting, may I commend the excelent article by Hugh White in Monday's Age. You will find it at < http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-question-we-can-no-longer-ignore-what-do-we-do-about-china-20150622-ghtz6a >
Ginger Meggs | 23 June 2015


It is good to remember that not only China claims 90% of the South China Sea. So does Taiwan. It is definitely based on historical claims. No Chinese leader is going to give it away. It will be political suicide. Most nations around the South China Sea were vassal states or tributaries of Ming and Qing China. There was no need to send a navy to occupy the South China Sea. What China wants is codvelopment of resources in disputed areas which both Vietnam and Philipines have rejected.
Kenneth Ng | 24 June 2015


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