Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


South China Sea dispute exposes soft Australia

  • 10 June 2015

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