Australia’s flawed position on the South China Sea

Author: Sam Bateman, RSIS

Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper says a lot about the South China Sea, both directly and indirectly. It expresses concern about land reclamation and construction activities by claimants in the sea and about the possible use of artificial structures for military purpose. It also makes much of the importance of a rules-based global order to Australia’s security, with a clear message that some countries are not following these rules.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull presents the Defence White Paper at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, 25 February 2016. (Photo: AAP).

While the White Paper does not name China, that’s how most commentators — and China itself — have interpreted these statements. As Benjamin Schreer has claimed, the White Paper ‘reflects the reality in maritime East Asia that China has moved to re-write the rules to fit its strategic preferences and historical narratives’. But what rules are we talking about?

Despite the White Paper’s references to a rule-based global order, the reality is not quite that simple. For one, other countries besides China also don’t follow the rules. Australia’s major security partner, the United States, is not party to many important international conventions, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of US forces in the Pacific, has said for example that, ‘We must continue to operate in the South China Sea to demonstrate that water space and the air above it is international’. But such statements ignore the carefully balanced regime of exclusive economic zones (EEZ) established by UNCLOS.

The South China Sea is not international water space. It is comprised of the EEZs of littoral countries, which have significant rights and duties in that water space. Other nations operating in that space must do so with due regard to those rights and duties.

Australia itself can also be accused of not conforming to the rules-based global order. One Australian commentary, which claims that China is trashing the rules-based order by refusing to recognise international arbitration over disputed islands in the South China Sea, conveniently overlooks the fact that Australia is taking a similar position to China in its maritime boundary dispute with Timor-Leste.

The White Paper seems to make a subtle swipe at China when it observes that Australia opposes the use of artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes. But this further begs the question of who is militarising the South China Sea. The short answer is: everyone. China and the United States accuse each other of ‘militarising’ the South China Sea, but in reality both are guilty.

Who you consider to be militarising the South China Sea largely depends on what you mean by ‘militarisation’. China’s construction of defensive military facilities is not the same as the militarisation implicit in increased military activity by the United States. China acknowledges that its reclaimed features have a military purpose, but describes the measures it has taken as ‘limited and necessary self-defence facilities’ consistent with ‘the right to self-protection’ afforded under international law.

In contrast, the United States has also raised the military ante with its provocative freedom of navigation (FON) operations, increased naval exercises and its military support for the Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea. Such initiatives are seen by China as an attempt to contain it.

China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea are cast as a growing threat to American interests, particularly by the Pentagon and the US Navy. But, conversely, instability in the South China Sea helps the Navy justify its budget, particularly as it’s the minor partner of the American Army and Air Force in both Syria and the Ukraine. For example, The South China Sea has become a major theatre of operations for the US Navy.

Demilitarising the South China Sea should be a genuine objective of all stakeholders. To this end, China should clarify its claims in the South China Sea and refrain from activities that will be seen as assertive or aggressive. The US should step back from its current naval initiatives in the region, including its provocative FON operations. A bit of ‘give and take’ is required on both sides.

Australia would do well to take a balanced approach. But in making a big play of the South China Sea, the White Paper falls in line with what Greg Austin has called ‘The Pentagon’s Big Lie about the South China Sea’. For Austin, the lie is the claim that China’s actions in the South China Sea threaten commercial shipping.

The White Paper replays this sentiment. To justify Australia’s concerns, it notes that ‘nearly two-thirds of Australia’s exports pass through the South China Sea, including our major coal, iron ore and liquefied natural gas exports’. This figure is incorrect. The accurate figure is a little over 20 per cent and most of this is trade with China. The White Paper actually disproves its own estimate with the map in Figure 2 showing that most of Australia’s sea freight does not pass through the South China Sea. Nor does the map does show the busy trade route between eastern Australia, Japan and South Korea that passes to the east of the Philippines, rather than the South China Sea.

There is much to like in the White Paper, particularly its focus on increased international defence engagement including with China. But policymakers need to be cautious of the White Papers’ exaggerations about how much China threatens Australian trade and security interests in the South China Sea.

Sam Bateman is an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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