Stuck In The Middle: Australia’s Position In The South China Sea Dispute

China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific has been a cause of significant tension for a number of years, especially with regards to the highly controversial South China Sea. Appeals to international law have cast China’s disputes with countries such as the Philippines into the public eye, yet one country whose security and future is intimately tied to the tensions in the region, and yet which often isn’t considered, is Australia.

Although Australia itself is not claiming territory in the South China Sea, it has another issue, and one that is not any less problematic. Australia is caught between two rivals. On the one side there is the United States (US). Australia’s relationship with the US has historically been very close, especially militarily, with Australia having followed the US into every major conflict since World War Two. America also has numerous military bases in Australia, including the famous satellite ground station, Pine Gap. America is Australia’s most powerful ally, and along with New Zealand is party to the ANZUS treaty (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) which provides that any armed threat to any of the countries is a threat to the others, and that they should all act to meet such a threat.

America and Australia’s ties are not limited to the military though, despite the significance of this particular aspect. Culturally, the two countries are also very similar and the people of both countries share many of the same values and ideals.

On the other side of this tug of war is China. China, despite being closer geographically to Australia than America, does not share the same cultural and military connection. The two countries have not been closely cooperating for nearly as long as Australia has been with the US, and the two have quite different political systems. China’s influence on Australia instead comes through a tight economic link. China is both Australia’s biggest export market, and biggest importer; with trade between the two countries being valued at $150 billion between 2015-16 according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Many Australian businesses are entering the Chinese market and vice versa, and in December 2015, the two countries introduced the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA).

Australia’s ties to both China and the United States would not be an issue for the country if these two great powers were cooperating. Unfortunately however, this is not the case. With China’s economy quickly growing to rival the United States, the US is very cautious of this possible threat to its dominance, and has taken action in an attempt to restrict China’s growing activity in the South China Sea; where China has been building artificial islands for military bases, and laying claim to parts of the sea that other countries claim to have a right over.

One way the US has been attempting to exert its influence and prevent China’s claiming of territory is through ‘Freedom of Navigation’ exercises. This involves having ships patrol within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificially created islands (the distance into the sea that a country’s sovereignty extends). This emphasizes the US’s position that the islands are in international waters and don’t really belong to China. The US relies on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which includes the right of ‘Freedom of Navigation’, saying that ships flying their State’s flag will not be interfered with by other States. Backing up these exercises is the fact that in July last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that China had no historic title and rights to the South China Sea. These Freedom of Navigation operations have naturally been heavily criticized by China.

The issue this poses for Australia, is that it has come under very heavy pressure from the United States to join them in these Freedom of Navigation operations. High ranking US officials have stated that they expect Australia to join them in condemning China’s actions as illegal under international law, and providing support for a ‘rules based international order’ by conducting their own provocative operations. One interesting thing to note is that for a country whom is very eager to enforce the obligations of the Convention on the Law of the Sea on China, the United States itself has not actually ratified the treaty .

If Australia were to conduct Freedom of Navigation exercises, this would have the potential to severely harm its relationship with China, something which could be potentially devastating for the country’s economy. Australia’s current approach has been to stall and avoid adopting too much of a hard-line stance in favour of either side, although there has been a slight lean towards the US, with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull having publicly emphasized how China should follow the decision of the Hague and not claim ownership of territory that is not lawfully theirs. Although Australia has claimed to be neutral in the dispute in the region, China does not believe this to be the case, and has admonished Australia for their comments and for allegedly taking sides.

The recent introduction of new factors into the situation has led to some interesting influences that may shape Australia’s approach. Firstly, the election of President Duterte in the Philippines has resulted in that country ceasing to lean so much towards the United States, and is now appearing to seek to rely more on China. Duterte is interested in holding one on one discussions with China without outside influence, something the United States, among other parties, is not in support of. The US believes that in negotiations between China and other regional countries, China’s enormous economic and military influence will mean any negotiations will be one-sided and not result in outcomes that are appropriate with what they believe should be the case under international law. Such bilateral discussions are something China has pushed for a long time, yet is something the previous Philippines President resisted. With the potential of countries in the region turning away from the US, and towards China, Australia must consider how this will affect their own position.

The second big influence on Australia’s approach has been the election of President Trump in the United States. A long standing presumption relating to the US-China rivalry is that if push came to shove, militarily, Australia would always stand on the side of the US. Now, with President Trump’s controversial foreign policy, scholars believe that it is highly unlikely that Australia could get enough support domestically to support Trump in aggravating a confrontation with China. Recent polls have shown that in general, Australians don’t like Trump, and it appears that Australia is wishing to somewhat distance itself from current US foreign policy.

With the region of the South China Sea remaining turbulent, and new developments shaping new approaches to foreign policy, Australia finds itself still in a precarious position. With President Trump continuing to aggravate China, Australia’s balancing act in the middle will remain difficult. It is likely that the best approach will be the one it has been practising so far; trying to stay out of the heart of the conflict and avoiding taking sides for as long as possible.

Fraser Lawrance