Should Australia be involved in the South China Sea?

For Australia, the dilemma is the extent to which it is willing to accommodate China's rewriting of the maritime rules.

Dr Rebecca Strating (Senior Lecturer, Politics, La Trobe University)
First published in The La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 2 on 1 July, 2019.

Over recent months, tensions again appeared to be ratcheting up in the South China Sea (SCS).

Last year, in August, a US destroyer nearly collided with a Chinese warship. In September, a Chinese destroyer came close to bunting a US warship, condemned by Australian defence minister Christopher Pyne as ‘aggressive tactics’ that were ‘destabilising and potentially dangerous’.

In December, China warned other states that it would take ‘necessary measures’ to defend its sovereignty after two incidents in a week involving US warships sailing near disputed waters. More recently, the Philippines has protested the presence of nearly 300 Chinese vessels around Philippine-occupied Thitu (or Pag-asa) Island in the Spratlys.

The US Trump administration has also been conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) more regularly. In February 2019, the US Navy conducted the Trump administration’s tenth known FONOP, in this instance within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef.

The US Vice-President Mike Pence’s defining speech to the Hudson Institute in October 2018, in which he declared a new era of competition over cooperation, pointedly called out Beijing’s ‘reckless harassment’ of US vessels in the SCS.

These dynamics require us to interrogate Australia’s interests in the SCS, what it is and is not doing to protect those interests, and how this issue affects relations with China, the US and other secondary powers.

Much of the focus in Australia is on how to protect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as a trade route. This perspective presents China as trying to gain control of the seas – in essence, to create a ‘Chinese lake’. Yet, much of Australia’s trade along the SCS is coming to and from China. There are bigger potential costs for Australia.

The rules matter for Australia, in both governing the seas as a ‘global commons’ as well as enabling the peaceful and rights-based distribution of maritime resources. At over 10 million square kilometers, Australia has the third largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the world.

Australia has a clear interest in trying to maintain a legal order that has provided it with such a significant entitlement on the basis of geographical rather than historical grounds. Challenges to the rules constitute a blow to the status quo order that Australia seeks to defend.

The rules also matter for regional security: while it seems unlikely that the SCS will be the flashpoint that tips the US and China into conflict, it may be considered a litmus test for what rising powers may be able to get away with in other oceanic and non-sovereign spaces, including Antarctica.

How Australia deals with the SCS has implications for its wider relationships. Australia has looked to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as part of a diversification strategy to hedge against its economic reliance on China. For its part, ASEAN has been divided on the SCS, although is negotiating with China around a Code of Conduct.

Australia has sought to deepen relations with Japan, which has played an important role in developing maritime security capacity among littoral Southeast Asian states. There is potential for Australia to conduct joint FONOPs with Britain and France in the future. This would provide an opportunity to assert the rules-based order – operationally as well as rhetorically – without binding itself so closely to the US.

In attempts to defend Australia’s SCS interests, the Turnbull government put the Chinese leadership offside with its strong language on the South China Sea, among other things. Australia’s ‘rules-based order’ rhetoric, for instance, targeted China’s refusal to abide by the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling in the case initiated by the Philippines, which found that China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and ‘historic rights’ had no legitimate basis under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

While Australia has moved to increase joint maritime exercises and port visits – including transiting through the Taiwan Strait in 2018 and 2019 – it remains hesitant to employ unilateral FONOPs to push back against China’s assertive actions.

Australia conducts freedom of navigation flights, yet from what is publicly known, it continues to resist pressure from US officials to conduct unilateral surface FONOPs within 12 nautical miles of contested islands, reefs and shoals.

Artificial islands, such as Mischief Reef, do not generate any maritime entitlements under international law if they are built upon submerged features. FONOPs are hence designed to protest against China’s excessive maritime claims, and assert rights to freedom of navigation and international law.

Given Australia’s claims to defend the ‘rules-based order’, its reluctance to participate in FONOPs creates a gap between rhetoric and operational policy.

While there are questions about the effectiveness of FONOPs and whether they are merely symbolic, there seems little doubt that part of Australia’s hesitance stems from fears that Beijing could retaliate, particularly in trade.

This reluctance is increasingly out of step with other like-minded, non-claimant states, such as France and Britain. In September 2018, Britain conducted its first SCS FONOP as it passed the Paracels, with China strongly opposing what it viewed as a violation of its sovereignty. These activities followed France’s earlier forays into SCS FONOPs.

Questions are being raised in Washington DC over whether FONOPs are enough to prevent Beijing from using ‘salami-slicing’ or ‘grey zone’ tactics to increase its control of land features and block Southeast Asian neighbours from accessing their sovereign rights to maritime resources.

Given the extent of China’s artificial island building, it seems the answer is no. Some analysts have therefore argued that a wider range of measures are needed in order to prevent China from controlling the SCS, in particular focusing on strengthening defence relationships and alliances with partners in Southeast Asia.

For Australia, the dilemma is the extent to which it is willing to accommodate China’s rewriting of the maritime rules, and what it is prepared to risk – particularly in economic terms – to push back against the artificial island building and excessive maritime claims that undermine UNCLOS.

The South China Sea disputes should not be examined in isolation from Australia’s other regional priorities. What Australia contributes will have an impact on its relationships with regional partners, and its alliance with the US, whose government appears to be expecting Australia to do more in this dispute.

Photo: China’s land reclamation on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. 16 June 2017 (