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By Invitation

South China Sea dispute puts Australia in a strategic bind

Like many Asian countries, Canberra is sending mixed signals to Washington about what it expects and wants from US-China ties, but it is now time to be more frank

A couple of weeks ago, news broke that an Australian air force plane had apparently been verbally challenged by the Chinese navy as it flew over the disputed Spratly Islands late last month. The forthright response by the plane's crew, recorded by the BBC, suggested that Australia had, at last, decided to follow the United State's lead and confront China's assertive posture in the South China Sea.

The natural assumption was that the flight, by a Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, was a "Freedom of Navigation" operation, like the one undertaken by the American naval ship USS Lassen in late October, that was apparently designed to confront Beijing's growing assertiveness in some of the world's busiest and most vital waterways.

This interpretation fitted in with expectations - including in Australia itself - that Canberra would take some concrete action to back up its strong rhetorical support for the US' criticisms of China's military base construction on disputed features in the Spratlys. It is what one would expect from the country that has always been the US' closest regional ally, and the strongest supporter of US President Barack Obama's so-called "pivot to Asia".

But like so much else about this year's events in the South China Sea, this first impression was misleading.

Just as the USS Lassen's transit turned out to be a much more hesitant challenge to China's maritime claims than at first appeared, the details that eventually emerged about the Australian P3 flight made it clear that this was not the bold gesture of defiance towards Beijing that many had assumed. In fact, as Australian officials subsequently made clear, the aircraft was on a routine patrol over the South China Sea - part of a series conducted under what is called Operation Gateway, which dates back to the Cold War, and was originally aimed at detecting Soviet naval forces entering and leaving the Indian Ocean.


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Gateway flights have continued since the end of the Cold War as part of Australia's longstanding strategic commitment to maritime security in South-east Asia, which is also reflected in its strong support for the Five Power Defence Arrangements covering Malaysia and Singapore.

It turns out that Gateway flights - including the one that took place late last month - often pass over or near the Spratlys, but they do not directly impinge on China's claims.

It also transpires that the Chinese navy often issues verbal warnings to the aircraft, just as it apparently did this time, and the Australian crew always respond just as the BBC reported.

Just routine business as usual, in other words.

This did not stop the Chinese Global Times newspaper from issuing dire threats, but the Chinese government chose to say very little. It turns out that Australia has decided not to translate its strong words into clear action against China after all.

This will no doubt surprise and disappoint many people in Washington, who are looking for clear signs that its Asian friends and allies are willing, and even eager, to back it all the way when it comes to defending American strategic leadership and maritime primacy in Asia.

US policymakers and analysts routinely assert that China's neighbours in and around Asia are all urging the US to stand up to China, and are 100 per cent committed to supporting it in doing so. And nowhere are their expectations higher than in relation to Australia.

The reality is rather different.

Of course, China's neighbours are worried about its growing power and how it will be used, and those worries can only be amplified by Beijing's assertive posture over maritime disputes like those in the South China Sea.

And, of course, everyone in Asia wants the US to maintain a strong regional strategic presence to counterbalance China's power and limit its influence.

But at the same time, they value their relationship with China enormously. They understand that China will most probably become, even more than at present, the locomotive of Asia's economy, and the key to their future prosperity. They understand China must inevitably become a more influential regional leader as its wealth and power grows.

And unless China behaves much worse than it has so far, they have no desire at all to take sides in an escalating strategic confrontation between Washington and Beijing.

They want the US to try much harder to find a way to get on with the powerful China of the 21st century, if it possibly can.

And, meanwhile, they will avoid doing anything in support of the US that risks provoking China's anger.

All of this is as true of Australia as it is of any of China's closer neighbours. It is true that Australians are deeply and instinctively committed to supporting America in Asia, but they also understand how important China is to their future, and they have no intention of endangering their relations with Beijing or missing economic opportunities just to please Washington.

As a result, Canberra has delivered a series of unwelcome surprises to Washington this year.

These included its decision to join China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank against US objections, and the awkward fact that Australian naval ships were undertaking unusually high-level naval exercises involving live firing of weapons with China's navy, at almost the same time as the USS Lassen was undertaking its transit of the Spratlys.

Most recently, Washington was disturbed to hear that the Australian authorities had decided to contract a Chinese company to manage the port in Darwin from which the US Marine units deployed there, under Mr Obama's "pivot", must operate - a surprise that President Obama himself indicated was not a pleasant one.

In the light of this pattern, it would indeed have been very strange had Australia really been willing to risk Beijing's anger by sending its aircraft to directly confront its claims in the South China Sea - especially when Washington itself has been so muddled and uncertain in its own Freedom of Navigation operations.

The problem remains, however, that the Australians , like other US friends and allies in Asia, are sending Washington very mixed messages. Their words encourage Americans to expect unwavering support against China, while their actions offer very little support indeed. No one should be surprised at the irritation, and worse, that results.

The risk is that Americans, feeling let down, will find it more and more tempting to wash their hands of the problem and leave countries in Asia to live with China's power as best we can without US protection.

If we want to avoid that, and help preserve a strong US role in Asia, then we all need to talk to the US more frankly and openly about exactly what that role should be, and how we in Asia think the US should balance its future place in Asia with the reality of China's new power.

As the increasing tensions of 2015 show, the need for such frank discussions is becoming more and more urgent.

  • The writer is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'South China Sea dispute puts Australia in a strategic bind'. Print Edition | Subscribe