What Australia’s stance on the South China Sea means for ASEAN

March 26, 2016

What Australia’s stance on the South China Sea means for ASEAN

by Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto, ANU


Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP) directs Australia’s strategic attention towards maritime Southeast Asia. While the 2009 and 2013 Defence White Papers also focused on this region, the 2016 DWP bluntly expresses Australia’s concerns in the South China Sea. And it inaugurates an assertive strategic policy that may have significant consequences for Southeast Asia’s security.

A Singaporean Navy air crew and warship. (Photo: AAP)

In the 190-page long document, Canberra pledges to increase capital investment in defence capabilities from the current AU$9.4 billion (US$7.1 billion) to AU$23 billion (US$17.4 billion) in 2025–26. Most of this investment will be channelled to the maritime domain. But what does this investment means for Southeast Asia and the South China Sea?

The 2016 DWP reflects continuity with the two preceding Defence White Papers in two key ways. First, the 2016 DWP reiterates the primacy of maritime strategy emphasised in previous White Papers, with a focus on the sea–air gap along Australia’s north. Maritime capabilities will be central in this enterprise, especially submarines that can provide what the 2016 DWP describes as ‘a strategic advantage in terms of surveillance and protection of our maritime approaches’. Second, the 2016 DWP echoes the previous two White Papers in highlighting ‘maritime Southeast Asia’ as a region that ‘will always have particular significance to [Australia’s] security’.

This emphasis on Southeast Asia is highlighted in the DWP’s list of Australia’s ‘strategic defence interests’. These interests are the security of Australia’s northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communications, a secure nearer region encompassing Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, and a stable Indo-Pacific region with a rules-based global order.

What differentiates the 2016 DWP from the previous ones is its selective emphasis on the South China Sea. While all the strategic defence interests are critical, the 2016 DWP puts great emphasis on the second. According to the 2016 DWP, ‘Australia’s reliance on maritime trade with and through South East Asia means the security of our maritime approaches and trade routes within South East Asia must be protected, as must freedom of navigation’.


Nowhere is freedom of navigation being challenged so close to Australia than in the South China Sea. Although the 2013 DWP called the South China Sea disputes to Australia’s strategic attention, the blunt emphasis of the 2016 DWP is unparalleled: ‘Australia does not take sides on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea but we are concerned that land reclamation and construction activity by claimants raises tensions in the region’, particularly ‘the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities’.

Such a robust statement encapsulates the reactionary assertiveness implicit in the 2016 DWP. This new strategic stance may involve Australia conducting military ‘freedom of navigation operations’ in the South China Sea, as well as anticipatory measures against China’s larger military modernisation drives.


Australia’s concerns about China can partly, if not entirely, explain what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull describes as ‘an historic modernisation’ of Australia’s naval capabilities, including the acquisition of 12 regionally superior submarines, three additional air warfare destroyers and nine new anti-submarine warfare frigates.

That the 2016 DWP elicited a predictably strong criticism from Beijing is not necessarily bad news. A stronger Australia can give Southeast Asia greater leverage vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea disputes. Australia’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia can also create more opportunities for defence cooperation. Regional countries can selectively draw upon Australia’s unique access to US defence technology and intelligence to complement their own military modernisations.

Australia’s bilateral and multilateral defence operations in the region, such as the Five Power Defence Arrangement, may begin to involve more sophisticated exercise scenarios that will benefit its Southeast Asian partners. Australia’s middle power status arguably makes it a politically less sensitive defence partner for Southeast Asia than major powers, such as the United States.

But despite these opportunities, Southeast Asia should also be aware of the associated risks that accompany Australia’s reactionary assertiveness. Given the region’s sensitivity towards the divisive prospect of major power influence, the 2016 DWP begs the question of whether Australia’s strategic policies are chiefly based on their own raison d’etre or are largely a reflection of those of its principal ally, the United States. While the strategic interests of some ASEAN countries may align more closely with Australia’s, ASEAN should remain cautious of being drawn deeper into Sino–American strategic competition, which could potentially undermine its unity.

At the operational level, Australia’s reactionary assertiveness might affect Southeast Asian maritime security with far reaching effects. Sandwiched between Australia and China, Southeast Asia would likely be the first region affected by a miscalculation involving Chinese and Australian maritime forces in the South China Sea. Controlled or orchestrated escalation during freedom of navigation operations is not foolproof.

Regardless of whether the plans of the 2016 DWP are achievable, they are a bellwether of Australia’s future strategic policy. Australia’s assertiveness is not tantamount to greater instability in Southeast Asia but ASEAN should not react idly to Australia’s new strategic direction. Unless Australia’s reactionary assertiveness takes the interests of Southeast Asian states into account, it will remain part of the problem rather than the solution.

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto is Indonesian Presidential PhD Scholar with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University. He is a former Associate Research Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article was first published here by RSIS.

22 thoughts on “What Australia’s stance on the South China Sea means for ASEAN

  1. It’s great folly plus blatant stupidity if ASEAN takes Australia’s Defence White Papers seriously. It’s relevant to note none of Australia’s previous Defence White Papers have ever been implemented as planned – zip, nada, zilch. In view of budgetary pressures mainly produced by the collapse in Australia’s mineral export prices, it’s highly questionable whether the plans in this White Paper are achievable. The White Paper expresses Australia’s concerns in the South China Sea, but it also commits Australia to continuing the development of defence relation with China through increased personnel exchanges, military exercises and other practical cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and countering piracy.

  2. The Nine Dash whatever, stands as among the most contrived demarcation borders in geography and history of nation states. The greed and arrogance of PRC without regard to the geopolitical implications and their ‘Occupation’ of drowned shoals and outcrops, can be seen as an affront to basic commonsense and fraternity to neighboring littoral states.

    There is no need to dwell on the internal politics of the CCP, but suffice to say that Xi Jinping’s spin on the Maritime Silk Road, is purely a maneuver to distract from the real socioeconomic and environmental problems besetting the wannabe behemoth. Leviathan they are not.

    The Aussies realize that they are also custodians and beneficiaries to the US$5 trillion trade that plies this part of the globe. Their main naval base in S. Australia is presently upgrading their Collins class submarines, developing LCS and SSC (Littoral Combat Ships & Small Surface Combatants), besides their other focus on defensive hardware. The DWP mentioned above is just part of a larger holistic program to counter the increasing belligerency of the Chinese Navy and fishing fleets.

    Just 2 days ago, the Indonesians had a fright when the shoals of Natuna were ‘raided’ and WIMP Malaysia had the audacity to complain that 100 ‘boats’ and other vessels were within their maritime borders.

    Watch this taken on 23rd of this month:

  3. Where is the rational behind DWP 2016, except to enrich the arm supplier USA by creating a destabilized SCSea ?

    USA and Australia are both non claimant .

    China has repeatedly publicly announced and assured ” free passage ” , why Australia wants “free navigation milatary operation” in the SCS ,no country including the ASEAN countries will agree ?

    Is Australia following the US lead in the path to Iraq War?

  4. Kllau, what right has PRC to draw the 9 dash line – unilaterally?
    Read UNCLOS before you bubble on.., and see whether the SEA belongs to Greater China. Dullness is not an option.

    The whole SCS is a continental shelf and even small fart Natuna archipelago has 1.3 bil m3 of natural gas reserves. What about the fisheries? If you live in Malaysia, and PRC fishing fleets overfish in SCS because almost 80% is theirs – you’d be lucky to taste ikan bilis with sambal. Our poverty stricken Nelayan, will soon be munching on tapioca leaves and selling their state-sponsored quota of diesel to the PRC fleets, besides selling their daughters.. It has all to do with the Economy. Or haven’t you heard?

    What is the use of “Free” passage when One doesn’t have the resources? It’s like having a prostitute when you are totally dickless.

    The Aussies have a very active domestic military-industrial complex, in case you are not aware of. Their navy is mostly indigenous and their army among the best trained and equipped. What they lack is long range air interdiction, for which they will depend on Taikor. Darwin is seeing an uptick of USN activities. They aren’t about to lie down and keep quiet. And yeah, they have Nuclear capability, even if they remain quiet about it.

    “The ADF’s current priorities are set out in the 2016 Defence White Paper, which identifies three main areas of focus. The first of these is to defend Australia from direct attack or coercion. The second priority is to contribute to the security of SouthEast Asia and the South Pacific. The third priority is to contribute to stability across the Indo-Pacific region and a “rules-based global order which supports our interests”. The white paper states that the government will place equal weight on the three priorities when developing the ADF’s capabilities.” (Wiki)

    PRC, shouldn’t push their bullying too far. After all they’ve already got our power stations and the upcoming CBD of KL, due to the 1MDB FUBAR. Apa lagi Cina mahu?

  5. The 9 dash line was first claimed by ROC in 1947, long before most ASEAN nations were countries, and subsequently claimed by PRC. The San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed 8 Sept. 1951 and entered into force 28 April 1952, where “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands” and handed them back to ROC. Name me one island in SCS that the British had named and handed to Malaysia when handing over sovereignty, or French to Vietnam, or American to Philippines, or Dutch to Indonesia. Let me be blunt to say laws, be them internal or international, are meant to keep the weak in their places and have little or no binding to the strong. The law of the jungle of might makes right always rules. Najib knows it best.

  6. @CLF PRC did not draw that 9 dash-line. They have inherited from ROC which in turn has gotten the claim from France after WWII. France was too pre-occupied in Vietnam, and just kind of gave away everything to ROC without a fight.

  7. So might is right? Okay, then USofA and Allies also have that right to challenge.

    But the Littoral states should have most say, irregardless of what a piece of paper says. The Problem stems from PRC’s insistence of using nebulous historical records and shards of pottery and ceramics – which goes to show that trade must be ‘fair’ and ‘unhindered’. Don’t confuse the Past as Present. The Past informs the Present to deal ably with the Future.

    The only constant in this world is change – and so do borders. The only thing static is the Chinapek Chauvinist Mentality. And if the China-way of the past has caused PRC so much grief, don’t you think it time to rethink their dogged parochialism? That sharing is not necessarily a loss?

    They insist on one-to-one with minnows, which is ridiculous because of the contiguity and overlapping maritime claims. Unless they stopped using strong arm (albeit ‘cacat’) tactics – it is much saner to have a Summit in UN and trash it out among the interested parties.

    If they don’t – PRC will implode – again. They will blame everyone else except their own hegemonic, demonic proclivities.

  8. Lupus,
    Littoral states have a lot to say, eh? Like Argentina over Isla Malvinas, Hahahahaha. Didn’t Thatcher send british armed forces over to retake Falklands Island? This is lagi interesting……


    Tell me how far Parejil Island from Morrocco. Heck, you already said that the borders are on constant change. Ah so…….hahahaha. Come on la! Why not just argue for the status of terra del nullus for South China Sea? Case close!

    Bilateral talks can be far better. History can tell you so. Heard of how Nixon screw up Johnson’s Vietnam’s peace proposal. If only there isn’t any third party involved, we may still have South Vietnam.

    It’s extremely strange when you argue for constant change in border. Why Lincoln declared war against the confederate states that seceded from United States? Why for the love of God, Lincoln must adopt cinapek attitude? To the extent of telling Great Britain not to interfere with US’s affair…….


    Hey, I thought that US originally made of 13 states from the east side of appalachian mountains. How come US can end up invading Mexico over frivilous claim? If US had their way, they may even conquer Canada……..hahahaha

    Just be a dog. Lie low la……….I don’t give a damn

  9. Exactly, CLF, it is the oil (economy) , stupid !
    and because of it, do ASEAN countries want to travel the same route of an never ending destabilized( created largely by US and its western allies)region of the Middle East,while continue paying “protection” money and being constantly interfered ?

    Australia has every right to its 2016 DWP for its own defence, except for extra-territorial military passage in SCS.

    SCS is an ASEAN problem as well as opportunity for profits with China and it shall and should be remained and resolved as such for maximum mutual benefits for all involved here, regardless of uni-bi-or-multi-lateral resolution, where jaw-jaw rather war-war is preferred, unconventionally.

  10. CCTV created this documentary about Chinese experience in SouthEastAsia.

    Get to learn a lot for myself. Yet, if entire China sees SouthEastAsia as such. This is not good indeed.

  11. Should the SCS be compared with the Suez/Panama Canal(s), Red Sea or the Straits of Hormuz/Malacca/Lombok etc? All are maritime trade ‘corridors’, which are nationalized in part or whole. The ‘Suez Incident’ is instructive, ain’t it? The trigger to the ‘Niceties’ that still engulf MENA as Hell on Earth til today..

    So does PRC have the right to claim the bounty in SCS unconditionally, in spite of the competing/overlapping sovereignty claims of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan? Why should any of these nations ‘cooperate’ solely with PRC for OnG or even fisheries? What does Independence mean? Bunga Mas again? I think this bunch of PRC redneck honchos will bite off more than they can chew, the Jaw2 becomes JAWS instead. They won’t be allowed to intimidate and rape at will.

    If PRC wanna act tough then the Aussies, Indonesians, Japanese, S. Korean and whatever Navies certainly can also react tough. The US with Aussies and NZ are partners of ANZUS. SEATO has been disbanded since 1977 basically because it was a cage of cojoneless paper tigers.

    Loosebrain, you are as imbecilic as usual. The only terra nullus is within the confines of your cranium. The Falkland folk speak English, identify with the British and should rightly be considered a British outpost. It’s not the Land per se, but the population. Your average ikan kembong (spanish mackerel) doesn’t speak Mandarin, however. As for the American Civil War, it was basically economics, stupid – and a smidgen of slavery. Waste of bandwidth.

  12. Meanwhile In Isla Malvinas……..


    An Chua! Ah so, Maggie who sunk Belgrano for nothing………hahahahaha

    Oooi doggie, One criminal act by Great Britain killed 323 Argentinians……


    See la! Never read history………what still wanna blame cinapek some more…..

    Where was Belgrano heading before it sink?

  13. While Lupus is complaining about China’s arbitrary 9 dash line, let us refresh his memory on this very important doctrine

    Monroe Doctrine!

    What is Monroe Doctrine hah, doggie in the window? With that doctrine, US messed up Colombia by creating Panama and thus gaining…….Panama canal. What happen to Battleship of Maine that led to what…….hahahahaha

    Like I say before, the best argument is to have declaration of terra del nullus for those disputed island in south china sea. No country can claim. Not that sneaky viets who whored themselves with whatever countries to get their best deals.

    Seriously, Viets team up with Russia and China to whack South Viets (US). Then whack China and Cambodia with Russia’s help. Now befriend US to………hahahahaha. Typical bastard!

    As for Pinoyland, they can’t even handle the restless Mindanao, still wanna claim more islands, aiyoooo………

    Guys & Gals,
    Don’t think that there is no great impact when China finally implode. That doggie…..sorry Lupus would be extremely sorry if that really happens. If China implodes itself, the whole region got to face the menacing Russia, the aggressive Japan (just revised their pacifist constitution) and that psycho north korea.
    Perhaps, US should try to be accommodative towards China. It’s good to have an emerging China as a bulwark against still enemy no 1 for USA, Russia. Learn from Nixon

  14. For what its worth CLF, I agree with you.

    Some people describe the PRC, as “peaceful” , “benign” , “non-aggressive” etc. Our wimpy pahlawans don’t have the cojones but more importantly the intelligence to face the clear and present danger. And our citizenry is….well…divided.

  15. //Our wimpy pahlawans don’t have the cojones but more importantly the intelligence to face the clear and present danger.

    Well, our 1PM did make things more confusing by selling 1MDB powerplants and 1Bandar to China.
    It will be interesting to see what happens if 1Bandar does not pan out.

    Singapore has tons of development in China also. It is hard for them to be an Asean pahlawan in this also.
    Speaking of which, some friends just sent me a link last week to a popular TV show selling our Bandar Iskandar, suggesting that it would be the Shenzhen of Malaysia.

    We can hardly call our Sultan and Raja Mahkota of Johor wimpy. As such, it is difficult to make any suggestion at the moment. Implosion or not, it is all in XiDada’s hand.

    As one China expert says, China needs to confront vested interest, and resolve many 4 unbalances. It would be easier to get done in one authoritarian state than a non functioning democracy.

    9 dash line claim is part of the deal for keeping that authority for the primier… So.. who knows..

    Perhaps, one day 1billion Chinese would wake up to the idea to suggest 9 dash line is unConfuciousnistic. Who knows.. but for now ..
    for now …

  16. @Dato.Din:


    Veritas has briefly mentioned Michael Pettis in the comment. Nonetheless, it seems that you have not featured what Mr Pettis has suggested. Veritas is right. He is influential and very convincing as per China needed a authoritarian state, at this very moment. He spelled out the challenge for today’s China, and explained mechanism of growth for many emerging ecnomy.

    What he has suggested applies to China, Malaysia and Cambodia. Hopefully, it could be shared more widely for many who wishes to better understand the situation in China.

    From political economy to finance, what he has suggested definitely deserves a good look.
    It is being shared with my students. —


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