Australia Speaks Plainly on the South China Sea

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Australia Speaks Plainly on the South China Sea

The country’s defense officials make their strongest statements yet on the disputes.

Australia Speaks Plainly on the South China Sea

Dennis Richardson

Credit: Lauren Larking © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

They say actions speak louder than words. So maybe Australia’s invitation to Japan to take part in U.S.-Australian war games in July and the lack of an invitation for China was a good indication of Australia’s disapproval of China’s activity in the South China Sea. But if that message didn’t get across (Beijing said it didn’t mind), in the past week officials from Australia’s Department of Defence made it clear in their strongest statements yet on the disputes.

On Wednesday, Australia’s Defence Secretary, Dennis Richardson, made the most significant statement yet against Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.

Speaking at a Royal United Services Institute at the New South Wales Parliament, Richardson said, “The speed and scale of China’s land reclamation on disputed reefs and other features does raise the question of intent and purpose.” He added bluntly, “It is legitimate to ask the purpose of the land reclamation – tourism appears unlikely.”

Richardson continued that China’s increased activities in the area, including the larger presence of Coast Guard vessels and law enforcement, intensified the potential for “miscalculation.”

The Defence secretary’s comments are the most direct from the current government and mark a significant change from Canberra’s usually tempered statements of the actions of its biggest trade partner.

Richardson’s comments follow the release of China’s Military Strategy White Paper this week.  They buttress the stronger rhetoric from the Defence Minister Kevin Andrews last week who noted, “Australia has made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the South or East China Seas. These include China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, and large-scale reclamation activity by claimants in the South China Sea.”

The release of China’s white paper comes just a few months before Australia’s own defense white paper and will likely cause some recalculations of what was previously tipped to be another bland document with few surprises. (See Nick Bisley’s assessment here.) The mid-year defense white paper will consider the U.S.-China relationship and re-evaluate the overall regional security environment. As pressure builds for the U.S. to confront China in the disputed area, amongst those calculations will be the debate of how far the U.S.-Australia alliance should go, namely whether the ANZUS Treaty, a U.S.-NZ-Australian security alliance formed soon after World War II, would apply in the event of conflict in the area. That’s a question that was been well explored last year during the East China Sea ADIZ. The answer: maybe.

Aside from these debates there are new calculations being done on how Australia should respond to protect its interests in the region. Most notably, the South China Sea is of crucial importance to Australian trade, for which China is its biggest trade partner. The majority of Australia’s trade passes through the area. With Australia’s mining boom over, according to Ross Garnaut, there will be increased importance on new LNG developments soon to come online in Australia. Tied to these are big export contracts set for East Asia, routes that will rely on the South China Sea.

More profound than these interests is Australia’s desire to maintain the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. As Michael Wesley, a prominent academic, wrote in a 2013 paper on Australia’s interests in the South China Sea, given Australia’s interests in the region, Canberra has been “markedly hesitant” in its stance in the disputes. Wesley notes that as Asian states were developing, the U.S. and European influence in the region remained strong. This meant that nomocratic or rules-based norms were more easily enforced through carrot and stick methods. Now that carrot, and increasingly the stick, is changing hands. Beijing’s ascendancy has challenged the status quo and seen an ascendancy of teleocratic, or non rules-based, norms. That leaves Australia, which has traditionally upheld the nomocratic bloc in the region, needing to recalculate and recalibrate its long-term strategies.

As worries abound about the risk of “miscalculation,” the region is undergoing a significant militarization. Australia is playing catch up to modernize its own capability. This has been most publicly seen in the marathon decision on where Australia’s new submarines should be built (explained in detail in an ASPI paper here). The ongoing debate – which now appears to favor a Japan build rather than a local build in South Australia – has seen the project delayed by several years. Similarly, the continued setbacks in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters program have left Australia’s defense behind the eight-ball. One positive this week came from the launch of the first of three Air Warfare Destroyers, capable of anti-surface, anti-submarine roles. (See the MoD statement here). The delayed pace of these rollouts have been offset by increased cooperation with the U.S. in recent years in support of Washington’s Asia rebalance, including the basing of U.S. marines in Australia’s top-end.

All told, China’s actions in the South China Sea are forcing a reluctant Canberra to make tough decisions on its regional alliances. Canberra’s shift in rhetoric this week is significant. It demonstrates a new willingness for Australia to speak plainly on the dispute. And that choice hasn’t come lightly.