Australia should stay out of the South China Sea

Canberra looks set to wade into the South China Sea’s turbulent waters.

As The Australian reported on Tuesday, Australia may soon fly a P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft near artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea’s contested waters.

Following a much-publicised US overflight of disputed Chinese-controlled territory last month, such an initiative would be a bold demonstration of Australian support for US moves to counter Chinese expansionism.

Canberra should reconsider this mooted freedom of navigation exercise.

Becoming so intimately involved in the South China Sea’s territorial disputes will neither serve the national interest nor help Australia’s Southeast Asian friends and partners fend off Chinese encroachment.

China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea are said to pose a threat to the national interest, given Australia’s dependence on this sea’s crucial shipping lanes.

With six of Australia’s top 10 export destinations in North and Southeast Asia, Australia’s economic security certainly depends on freedom of navigation in and around the South China Sea.

But as Geoff Miller, former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments, pointed out yesterday, the idea that Chinese actions in the South China Sea endanger freedom of commercial navigation is alarmist.

China is the world’s largest trading nation and a voracious consumer of resources, goods and services the Chinese are able to access thanks to freedom of flight over, and navigation through, the South China Sea and adjoining bodies of water.

Consequently, even if China managed to wrest control of the South China Sea from its Southeast Asian neighbours, Australian iron ore and coal would still pass unhindered through the South China Sea and Australia-bound Chinese students and tourists would still fly over its waters.

As I have previously argued, Asia’s territorial disputes nevertheless endanger Australian economic interests, given the proven power to undermine intra-Asian trade and investment flows.

But while territorial disputes on China’s periphery might damage economic relations between Asian nations, Beijing is highly unlikely to commit economic self-harm by using its expanding control of the South China Sea to hinder the passage of Australian exports.

Of course, Australia also has broader moral and strategic stakes in the South China Sea. Canberra rightly supports a fair resolution of the South China Sea’s territorial disputes and has a deep vested interest in peace and stability in the waters of the Western Pacific.

Sadly, however, Australian freedom of navigation exercises would not serve either of these policy objectives.

For decades, China has used its growing economic and military weight to advance its claims to contested territory. China has expelled militarily weak countries like the Philippines from contested islands, used its diplomatic influence over pliant Southeast Asian nations toscuttle attempts to foster a unified ASEAN response to China’s territorial aggrandisement, and even engaged Vietnam in two naval battles over the Paracel and Spratly islands (1974 and 1988, respectively).

The extensive evidence of Chinese determination to make the South China Sea a Chinese ‘lake’ is consistent with Beijing’s official statements. Again and again, China has made clear that it will never compromise in the South China Sea, and will fight when necessary to assert its control of disputed territory.

With China comfortably on track to become the globe’s greatest military power in a matter of decades, it is wildly naïve to imagine that China will abandon its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

In light of this Chinese determination and soaring strategic trajectory, Australia’s proposed freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea will be limp and ineffective.

In fact, the net result of such initiatives is likely to be little more than bursts of objection from Beijing. Editorials in the nationalistic and government-owned Global Times would probably blast Australia as a US ‘lackey,’ while the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi might call his counterpart Julie Bishop to deliver a stinging rhetorical dressing-down.

Such diplomatic bluster might not dent the strong upward trajectory of Sino-Australian relations. But Australia’s prize for enduring a barrage of Chinese criticism would be derisory.

Beijing would remain steadfast in its commitment to controlling the South China Sea and Chinese dredging vessels would continue to construct new ‘facts on the water.’