First published on The Interpreter on 16 October, 2015.
In the 2015 iteration of their annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) set-piece, the US and Australia have opted to shine a light on China's activities in the South China Sea.
AUSMIN has an important role in managing the increasingly broad-ranging alliance. But it has also come to be an annual exercise in diplomatic signalling. In the triptych – a joint press conference, a media statement and a formal communique – the US and Australia have a regular forum to send messages about the role of the alliance and their common posture in relation to the issues of the day. In recent years, North Korea's nuclear ambitions, transnational terrorism and regional security architecture have become regular features of these formalities, which have at times a catechistic quality.
The position taken in relation to China's extensive reclamation activities in the South China Sea in this week's meeting has caused some commotion.
The two allies expressed their 'strong concern' about what China has been doing and reiterated the general formula adopted by the US since March this year: calling on parties to halt reclamation, defuse tensions, clarify claims and resolve disputes in accordance with international law. None of this is itself particularly controversial or new. But the language about exercising the right to travel by air and sea in these waters seemed to increase tensions.
The principal reason was not the statements about sailing contested waters, but the fact that they came immediately on the back a series of US Government officials backgrounding the press about Washington's intent to imminently undertake a freedom of navigation exercise, action which has been implied as a rebuke to Beijing. In this context, the fact that Australia and the US underlined the right to fly and sail freely at AUSMIN seemed to be a deliberate turning up of the temperature. Beijing responded in predictably strong terms, accusing Washington and Canberra of pouring fuel on the fire of regional tensions.
The US took far too long to respond to China's assertiveness in the South China Sea – nearly six months passed from the beginning of the reclamation activity and the March 'great wall of sand' speech by US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris. The US approach since then has been highly reactive, often ill-judged, not especially effective and has reinforced impressions that US influence in the region is declining. And in the AUSMIN freedom of navigation remarks, Washington appears again to be playing a clumsy hand.
Both the Obama Administration and analysts have portrayed the exercising of rights as a dialing up of pressure; pushing back against Chinese behaviour. Yet taking steps to exercise these navigational rights is, as a number have already pointed out, not a tool one uses to contest sovereignty, particularly given that the US has repeatedly underlined that it does not take a position in relation to territorial disputes to which it is not a party. Moreover, China has no specific interest in preventing free passage even in the 12 nautical mile waters of these islands, as this is allowed under international law provided vessels remain peaceful.
Thus even though the Administration is probably trying to take a more nuanced line, its public diplomacy undermines its position. Expectations have been raised that the US, with the support of Australia, will be testing or even contesting China's policy. But given that navigational exercises don't challenge China's sovereignty claims, such expectations will inevitably be dashed.
Equally, China has long taken the position that the reclaimed islands are not intended for military use, which critics feel is disingenuous or at least jesuitical. Yet if the US sends in its navy (possibly the RAN alongside), China will be able to claim that Washington has militarised a dispute to which it is not a claimant. One of the region's abiding problems is the growing militarisation of its international disagreements. And although freedom of navigation exercises are a form of diplomacy, they are firmly at the coercive end of the spectrum, and Washington would plainly be contributing to this trend.
By signaling its intent to hold freedom of navigation exercises and linking them to the AUSMIN set-piece, the US has set itself up to fail. China is not going to step back from what it has constructed, nor is Washington going to fight its most important economic partner over them. Beijing knows this and will exploit its advantages accordingly. The US and Australia surely must recognise that they allowed China too much latitude too early and that it is now too late to get any meaningful movement from Beijing.
Instead of poorly coordinated efforts to show strength, Washington and Canberra would be much better served taking active steps to ensure that the new facts on the ground in the South China Sea don't do more harm than just reinforcing the impression of slackening US influence.
Image from the U.S. Department of State on Flickr.