The Buzz

The Next Big South China Sea Question: What Should Australia Do?

In a recent comment piece in The Australian, Peter Jennings urges action in the South China Sea. He’s quite correct. China’s island-building activities are clearly demonstrating Beijing’s determination to fundamentally alter the current situation by its own asserting sovereign control over international waters.

Unfortunately, what replaced the earlier status quo has now become a fait accompli. Attempting to shoehorn a military response to fit a diplomatic problem represents a fundamental category error. Australia does need to take action—but returning defense spending to Cold War levels would be futile and pointless.

For years we lived with a plethora of overlapping national claims to the atolls, rocks and shoals that poke through the waters here at low tide. Nevertheless (although with the occasional exception when heightened tensions have led to small-scale confrontations between claimants) it’s always been assumed that, at some long-distant point in the future, negotiations would eventually lead to a mutually agreed settlement of the claims. China’s unilateral actions suggest this is no longer possible.

Tiny spits of sand in the disputed waters have now been turned into huge islands. By acting in this way Beijing has signaled—unequivocally—that it won’t withdraw. This means there can be no negotiations. The Dragon is shifting in its bed and telling the fleas to get out of the way.

At the Australian military’s staff college, this is the point at which the Directing Staff hand over to syndicates. The problem is clear: what’s required is a clear response that will contribute to a positive solution. Perhaps this explains why James Goldrick (a former commander of the Australian Defence College) has now offered a subtle and effective program for action.

There’s just one problem: it won’t work. While it’s simple to urge the dispatch of a naval force to operate in the disputed waters, it’s just not realistic. Goldrick suggests we point out to Beijing that its ‘islands’ are artificial and didn’t rise above high tide until it conducted the land reclamation operations. So what? They do now.

It’s difficult to see exactly what would be achieved by such a provocative course. Yes, we would have ‘proved’ we believe those are international waters, but do we really want to risk war? What if, for example, China sent its vessels to intercept ours or, even worse, threatened to fire on RAN vessels transiting these waters? Do we really want such a confrontation?

The difficulty is to negotiate the plethora of differing objectives that motivate the various actors in the drama. By sailing a navy ship within 12 nautical miles of China’s new ‘islands’ President Obama has sent a clear signal that the U.S. won’t be recognizing Beijing’s claim. But now what? And what are the other claimants going to do? The U.S. still refuses to ratify the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (although abiding by it) but the real problem will come the next time America attempts to do the same thing.

What happens when, instead of simply shadowing the U.S. ship through the waters, a couple of Chinese fishing vessels place themselves in the way of the American vessel? Or China doesn’t accept the transit. And what of the other claimants to these waters? It’s not at all clear what the end-game is here. The creative tension that ASEAN has accepted with the mutually overlapping claims of its members worked as long as the different nations respected each other and didn’t attempt to force the issue. Those times are over; China’s playing for keeps.

ASEAN still hasn’t even managed to frame a joint protest against China’s actions, which can hardly come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following that organization’s record. If the Southeast Asian countries had been able to negotiate demarcations between themselves, they might have had a show at preventing China’s unilateral action. Unfortunately they couldn’t get their act together earlier and it’s far too late for that now.

Jennings recommends lifting our defense spending to a minimum of 2% of GDP over the longer term but again, what will this achieve? China will outspend us, no matter how much we boost our commitment. Perhaps more importantly, building up our forces isn’t a sensible answer to the problem of land reclamation in the South China Sea. It’s an attempt to find a military answer to resolve a diplomatic question, and it won’t work.

Since 2008 we’ve spent (all up) the equivalent of $1 billion a year on sending forces to the Middle East, and yet that situation has just deteriorated further. Our forces haven’t achieved the desired effect. That’s why I’d be searching for a clearer link between boosting spending and achieving the desired result before assuming that buying more ships and submarines made any sense.

Perhaps most importantly, aggressiveness doesn’t suit the new political mood in the country.

Tony Abbott constantly linked the deteriorating international situation with the need to spend more money to increase security. This didn’t win him the votes when he needed them. Not even the Liberal party room is listening to the old siren song emphasising defence. Malcolm Turnbull has already made it quite clear that he believes the best security is guaranteed by a sound economy. He’ll be paying down the deficit before he spends more money on our armed forces.

Pages