Australia’s Contentious Strategy in the South China Sea

October 15, 2016

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 358 | October 13, 2016


Australia’s Contentious Strategy in the South China Sea

By Orrie Johan

Image result for australia and the south china sea

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop

Considerable disagreement persists over an ideal Australian policy response to China’s actions in the South China Sea (SCS). In recent days, the Opposition Defense Minister from the Labor Party challenged current government policy by arguing that Australia should begin staging freedom of navigation exercises (FONOPs) in the fiercely contested South China Sea. This view was criticized not only by senior figures in the current government, which holds a razor-thin parliamentary majority, but also by a number of highly influential former leaders of the Labor Party. Australia does not have a direct sovereignty stake in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. However, as an island nation which is heavily reliant on regional and global trade, Australia’s economic and military security are reliant on the region remaining stable and open.

Australia’s approach to the SCS is also shaped by its relations to the region’s major players, each of which has differing views of how they would like Australia to engage in the South China Sea. Australia has traditionally relied on the U.S. as its primary ally to protect against external threats and the two countries share strong cultural, economic, and defense ties. But U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and the stability which it has provided is increasingly challenged by China’s rise. Australia’s economic prosperity relies heavily on China’s rapid economic growth to sustain demand for Australian exports — particularly natural resources and services.

Australia faces expectations from the U.S. to assist its efforts to uphold the current regional order. These efforts include support for arbitration cases like that of the Philippines and conducting FONOPs in disputed areas. From China, Australia faces pressure to refrain from challenging China’s approach of using unilateral or bilateral means to resolve many of these disputes. This would undoubtedly include Australia refraining from conducting U.S.-style FONOPs.

Australia’s domestic debate on how to respond to China in the South China Sea is mostly dominated by two competing schools of thought. The first is that Australia should stay in lock-step with the U.S. in challenging China’s unilateral moves in the South China Sea, while the second group recommends supporting the U.S.’s position, but moderating Australia’s responses at the same time to avoid Chinese repercussions. Proponents of each view can be found in both the left-leaning Labor party and the right-leaning Liberal party, as can be seen by the criticism of the Opposition Defense Minister’s recent comments from figures linked to both major parties. The question of whether Australia should participate in U.S. FONOP exercises or even conduct its own represents one of the major fault-lines between these two camps. An additional minority view held by the Greens party and some others proposes reducing Australia’s ties with the U.S. Public opinion in Australia meanwhile has strongly positive views of both the U.S. and of China.

Supporters of Australia’s participation in FONOPs tend to emphasize the importance of the U.S. alliance to Australia and the threat of Chinese unilateralism to Australia’s strategic neighborhood. They maintain that Australia relies on the U.S. not only for its security from external attack, but also to maintain the stability of the region and the international law regime that secures Australia’s economic trade. They argue that Australia should firmly support the U.S. in its dealings with China and should conduct FONOPs because doing so furthers both Australian and U.S. interests. They also argue that Australia has the capabilities to conduct FONOPs, as U.S. FONOPs have used just a single ship in the past. Australia could spare a P-3 Orion aircraft or a frigate for this purpose. Support for this view predominately comes from Australia’s defense and security communities and is also supported by senior figures in both major Australian political parties.

The mainstream opponents of FONOPs agree on the importance of the U.S. alliance to Australia, but they also emphasize China’s importance to Australia and focus on potential risks from Chinese retribution to an Australian FONOP. Australia’s economy relies heavily on China and the Chinese government has punished other countries economically for taking stances which China strongly opposes. Opponents to FONOPs often also argue that Australia supports the U.S. in other ways and that it does not make sense for Australia to conduct FONOPs since no country other than the U.S. has conducted them thus far. This group supports increased flexibility within the U.S.-Australia alliance when cooperation would affect relations with China. Support for this perspective predominately comes from Australia’s diplomatic and business communities, as well as senior figures in both major Australian political parties. A minority of members of Australia’s defense community supports it as well.

Image result for Turnbull and Xi

The Australian government’s actions in the South China Sea thus far fall in the “flexible alliance” camp. Prime Minister Turnbull has built stronger security ties with regional neighbors like the Philippines and Vietnam, a trend which the U.S. and other regional powers support as a way of preserving the rules-based regional order and reducing China’s unilateral leverage in the region. His government has also voiced support for U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea and has been one of the few countries that has consistently and openly supported the Philippines’ use of an arbitration tribunal to challenge China’s claims in the SCS, despite Chinese opposition to both measures. However, the Turnbull government has thus far decided not to conduct a freedom of navigation operation close to disputed islands in the South China Sea, indicating that they believe such an action risks escalating tensions with China. While Australian military forces periodically patrol the South China Sea in the name of regional stability and intelligence gathering under Operation Gateway, Australian forces thus far have not publicly traveled within the limit of territorial waters that China claims in order to replicate U.S. FONOPs. Instead the Turnbull government has stated its support for a diplomatic approach to encourage China to compromise.

Australia is not facing a binary choice between a security partner (the U.S.) and an economic partner (China); the U.S. is a major economic partner for Australia as well. Australian prime ministers over the last two decades have therefore often stated that Australia does not have to choose between the U.S. and China. Turnbull seems to be following this approach by showing the U.S. that it supports American freedom of navigation operations and by showing China that Australia will not participate in any FONOPs itself. If Turnbull remains in office, then this policy is unlikely to change unless Australia begins to feel that Australian civil and military assets risk losing their ability to travel safely through the South China Sea.

Orrie Johan is a researcher at the East-West Center in Washington. He recently obtained a master’s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia-Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington

APB Series Coordinator: Alex Forster, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

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9 thoughts on “Australia’s Contentious Strategy in the South China Sea

  1. I wonder whether Orrie is Aussie? He/she is writing an op-piece which is neither here nor there – Limbo journalism.

    He doesn’t understand the psycho-dynamics of an average Aussie – whether of Caucasian, Asian, African and heck, even Aboriginal descent. Master’s in Security Studies? Goodness me, that must be equivalent in value to our dPM’s PhD!

    Aussies are notorious wafflers most of the time – they procrastinate until the very last moment. Their politicians are expert backstabbers and Machiavellian populists – no matter how ‘smart’ they appear to be. One has to really push them against the wall or in their case – the Olympic Dam (go wiki it) before they commit themselves.

    They look, smell, sound and touch like pragmatic sheep lovers, but scratch the surface and you get an Occidental Dingo. In other words, no matter what their ‘economic’ dependence and relationship with PRC, they will stick with their outback cowboy cousins – the Americans and Europeans when it comes down the wire. Nothing is simpler.

    It’s all about ‘shared values and culture’. PRC can try to buy up their biggest farm, power plants, telecoms and largest mine – they ain’t selling – no matter the price.

    So what is FONops? Chickenfeed – dedak.. Wait til they export their odoriferous Vegemite to the blur Chinapek and you’ll know the mainline Chinese are actually suckers for novelty.

    Right now, i’m trying to sell to the Beijing-Shanghai-Shenzhen Mandarins, that Emu down-feathers mixed with desiccated dingo scrotal sacs are great aphrodisiacs. I’ll rely on my son to speak his terribly accented Oz slang, while dressed in a Bruce Lee jumpsuit, Mao haircut and sporting the trademark Chinapek epicanthic folds, to do the marketing.

  2. Su Di Wen ·
    Sydney, Australia
    Prior to discovery of resources in the area everyone recognised these are part of China.


    1. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and the Northern Island

    a) China Sea Pilot compiled and printed by the Hydrography Department of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom in 1912 has accounts of the activities of the Chinese people on the Nansha Islands in a number of places.

    b) The Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong) carried an article on Dec. 31 of 1973 which quotes the British High Commissioner to Singapore as having said in 1970: “Spratly Island (Nanwei Island in Chinese) was a Chinese dependency, part of Kwangtung Province… and was returned to China after the war. We can not find any indication of its having been acquired by any other country and so can only conclude it is still held by communist China.”

    2. France

    a) Le Monde Colonial Illustre mentioned the Nansha Islands in its September 1933 issue. According to that issue, when a French gunboat named Malicieuse surveyed the Nanwei Island of the Nansha Islands in 1930, they saw three Chinese on the island and when France invaded nine of the Nansha Islands by force in April 1933, they found all the people on the islands were Chinese, with 7 Chinese on the Nanzi Reef, 5 on the Zhongye Island, 4 on the Nanwei Island, thatched houses, water wells and holy statues left by Chinese on the Nanyue Island and a signboard with Chinese characters marking a grain storage on the Taiping Island.

    b) Atlas International Larousse published in 1965 in France marks the Xisha, Nansha and Dongsha Islands by their Chinese names and gives clear indication of their ownership as China in brackets.

    3) Japan

    a) Yearbook of New China published in Japan in 1966 describes the coastline of China as 11 thousand kilometers long from Liaodong Peninsula in the north to the Nansha Islands in the south, or 20 thousand kilometers if including the coastlines of all the islands along its coast;

    b) Yearbook of the World published in Japan in 1972 says that Chinese territory includes not only the mainland, but also Hainan Island, Taiwan, Penghu Islands as well as the Dongsha, Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands on the South China Sea.

    4. The United States

    a) Columbia Lippincott World Toponymic Dictionary published in the United States in 1961 states that the Nansha Islands on the South China Sea are part of Guangdong Province and belong to China.

    b) The Worldmark Encyclopaedia of the Nations published in the United States in 1963 says that the islands of the People’s Republic extend southward to include those isles and coral reefs on the South China Sea at the north latitude 4°.

    c) World Administrative Divisions Encyclopaedia published in 1971 says that the People’s Republic has a number of archipelagoes, including Hainan Island near the South China Sea, which is the largest, and a few others on the South China Sea extending to as far as the north latitude 4°, such as the Dongsha, Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands.

    5. Viet Nam

    a) Vice Foreign Minister Dung Van Khiem of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam received Mr. Li Zhimin, charge d’affaires ad interim of the Chinese Embassy in Viet Nam and told him that “according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha and Nansha Islands are historically part of Chinese territory.” Mr. Le Doc, Acting Director of the Asian Department of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, who was present then, added that “judging from history, these islands were already part of China at the time of the Song Dynasty.”

    b) Nhan Dan of Viet Nam reported in great detail on September 6, 1958 the Chinese Government’s Declaration of September 4, 1958 that the breadth of the territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China should be 12 nautical miles and that this provision should apply to all territories of the People’s Republic of China, including all islands on the South China Sea. On September 14 the same year, Premier Pham Van Dong of the Vietnamese Government solemnly stated in his note to Premier Zhou Enlai that Viet Nam “recognizes and supports the Declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on China’s territorial sea.”

    c) It is stated in the lesson The People’s Republic of China of a standard Vietnamese school textbook on geography published in 1974 that the islands from the Nansha and Xisha Islands to Hainan Island and Taiwan constitute a great wall for the defense of the mainland of China.

    B. The maps printed by other countries in the world that mark the islands on the South China Sea as part of Chinese territory include:

    1. The Welt-Atlas published by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1954, 1961 and 1970 respectively;

    2. World Atlas published by the Soviet Union in 1954 and 1967 respectively;

    3. World Atlas published by Romania in 1957;

    4. Oxford Australian Atlas and Philips Record Atlas published by Britain in 1957 and Encyclopaedia Britannica World Atlas published by Britain in 1958;

    5. World Atlas drawn and printed by the mapping unit of the Headquarters of the General Staff of the People’s Army of Viet Nam in 1960;

    6. Haack Welt Atlas published by German Democratic in 1968;

    7. Daily Telegraph World Atlas published by Britain in 1968;

    8. Atlas International Larousse published by France in 1968 and 1969 respectively;

    9. World Map Ordinary published by the Institut Geographique National (IGN) of France in 1968;

    10. World Atlas published by the Surveying and Mapping Bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office of Viet Nam in 1972; and

    11. China Atlas published by Neibonsya of Japan in 1973.

    C. China’s sovereignty over the Nansha Islands is recognized in numerous international conferences.

    1. The 1951 San Francisco Conference on Peace Treaty called on Japan to give up the Xisha and Nansha Islands. Andrei Gromyko, Head of the Delegation of the Soviet Union to the Conference, pointed out in his statement that the Xisha and Nansha Islands were an inalienable part of Chinese territory. It is true that the San Francisco Peace Treaty failed to unambiguously ask Japan to restore the Xisha and Nansha Islands to China. But the Xisha, Nansha, Dongsha and Zhongsha Islands that Japan was asked to abandun by the Peace Agreement of San Francisco Conference were all clearly marked as Chinese territory in the fifteenth map A Map of Southeast Asia of the Standard World Atlas published by Japan in 1952, the second year after the peace conference in San Francisco, which was recommended by the then Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuo Okazaki in his own handwriting.

    2. The International Civil Aviation Organization held its first conference on Asia-Pacific regional aviation in Manila of the Philippines on 27 October 1955. Sixteen countries or regions were represented at the conference, including South Viet Nam and the Taiwan authorities, apart from Australia, Canada, Chile, Dominica, Japan, the Laos, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand and France. The Chief Representative of the Philippines served as Chairman of the conference and the Chief Representative of France its first Vice Chairman. It was agreed at the conference that the Dongsha, Xisha and Nansha Islands on the South China Sea were located at the communication hub of the Pacific and therefore the meteorological reports of these islands were vital to world civil aviation service. In this context, the conference adopted Resolution No. 24, asking China’s Taiwan authorities to improve meteorological observation on the Nansha Islands, four times a day. When this resolution was put for voting, all the representatives, including those of the Philippines and the South Viet Nam, were for it.

    No representative at the conference made any objection to or reservation about it.
    Like · Reply · Oct 14, 2016 12:54am

    Su Di Wen ·
    Sydney, Australia
    As far back as the Han Dynasty(206-220BC), the South China Sea and these islands and rocks were already discovered during their navigation and work. At that time, SCS was named as “Zhang Sea” and these various groups of islands collectively as “Qitou”.

    During the Sui (581-618AD) and Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), specific names were assigned to individual islands and area of seas and these included “Jiaoshi Mountain”(礁石山), Xiang Rock (象石), “Qizhou Sea” (七州洋), etc, reflecting the activities of the Chinese people at that time in these places.

    During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the Chinese people began using proper names such as Shitang (石塘) and Changsha (长沙) to name these islands and rocks and to include them and their surrounding waters within the scope of administration of Hainan Province, area of economic zone, and defence.

    Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368AD) continued to use these names such as Shitang and Changsha, and many capitals and cities also adopted these terms to be the name of some Chinese cities throughout subsequent dynasties.

    The “Miscellaneous Record of South Sea Defensive Command Manual” (海南卫指挥佥事柴公墓志铭) recorded that during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644AD) Hainan Navy had over 10,000 soldiers and 50 large ships patrolling the Xisha, Zhongsha, and Nansha Islands. Various versions of Sea Navigation Manuals called “Genlubu”(更路簿) were produced during the Ming Dynasty showing detailed maps, names (of 22 Xisha and 76 Nansha islands), possible routes, fishing areas, and weather conditions to these islands and rocks. The various versions reflected centuries of navigational experience and economic activities in the region. Within the “Genlubu” also contains government instruction on issues such as boundary on where fishermen were allowed to venture into, amount of food they were to bring along, and size of the boats they’re permitted to use, clearly illustrates Guangdong provincial government administration were already in place during the Ming Dynasty.

    From the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912AD) to the Republic of China, there were various efforts to formerly asserts sovereignty over these islands and rocks and to clearly show them on maps. For example in 1909, the Qing government sent Admiral Li Zhun (李准) from Guangdong to visit and survey the Xisha, Dongsha, Nansha, Zhongsha Islands during which he also named 15 additional islands and rocks.

    In 1935, the Republic of China government appraised and verified the names of various islands and published the “South China Sea Islands Map” (中国南海岛屿图), clearly illustrates the inclusion of these Islands as Chinese territory.

    According to international laws and principals four conditions must ALL be met to be able to claim sovereignty over them:
    1. First to discover
    2. FIrst to name
    3. First to begin human activities
    4. First to begin government administration.
    China is the ONLY country that has met all of these four conditions as evidenced by “Genlubu” produced during the Ming dynasty or for some of the islands even further back to the Song Dynasty.

  3. So what? Stop yodeling. Case over.

    Go present it to the PCA in Hague which made a couple of rulings which although have no immediate impact nor are enforceable, have made PRC lose puhlenty face-water, dignity and class.

    Oops.. too late – but no worries them Commies have that murdering Pinoy Prez Du-sumpthin’ in their pocket ya..?

    CCP signed UNCLOS did they? So either they quit that or accept the verdict, otherwise they forever more be labelled as Bully boys..
    Otoh, Taikor USofA didn’t ratify that, so that they can easily create another Gulf of Tonkin or Sirte incident. Watch out for Slippery Hillary.

    There goes Bizness..!

  4. The contentious question for Australia (and allies) to ponder is
    Test FIRST if it works on the perspectives of FONOPs with having some of the Brics countries applying it at Caribbean.

    Maybe, the policy of Shared Benefits of Resources and Responsibilities (SaBOR) without sacrificing peace , prosperity and security involving countries that have common coastlines with SCS, could work sustainably better.

  5. Lupus,
    So what sort of journalism you want? Gonzo journalism? I wonder Din should embrace the diversity by accepting journos from Hunter Thompson. Come on! Even BBC did “Fear and Loathing in 2015 UK election”
    What plenty of lose face you are talking, oh doggie? Just because ang moh got bigger stick, you have to kowtow to them. Have you forgotten Putin, the New Master of the World?
    CCP is doing what Pommies had done in 18th century. I got big guns, so? Plus Putin got even bigger guns

  6. Still mentioning PCA’ s findings that UN had clearly disowned. It had invalidated the argument that relies on it.

  7. Kllau, Rule of Law, in which UNCLOS arbitrates.
    UN? Nothing to do with Law and totally ineffectual. A political animal.

    PRC violates the PCA verdict at it’s own peril of losing dignity – as they are so diligent and ‘Righteous’ in Application of their own Law, without regard to any International Code of Conduct.

    Their legalisms in this case, have not been tested because their lauyars gave the wrong advice or that they didn’t have a place to stand on before the high tide came, in the first place.

    Same as the US in terms of hypocrisy, don’t you think? Taikor wages war at any pretense, because they can. Can PRC afford that, with a restive hinterland?

    I would rather PRC look at it’s massive internal problems – infrastructure, legal, banking, economic, environmental and social rather than pick a fight with minnows. Externalizing problems do not solve the internal rot.

    You cannot have your cake and eat it, without just cause.
    And BRICs is a joke that only bricks adore.

    As for Loosebrain comments, i won’t dignify a reply to lost connections.

  8. CLF,
    The purpose of the exercise is to resolve disputes, rather to embarrass, which appears to be the intension of Philippines under the incitement of USA. This is indicatively coded as international misconduct

    Any party,signatory to it or otherwise, can uni, bi or multi-laterally use UNCLOS as the basis to arbitrates and argue the case in question.

    UNCLOS does not arbitrate, PCA’ does.
    PCA is not part of the UN system.International Court of Justice (ICJ) is.

    The ICJ should, instead, be nominated as a venue for resolving disputes, in which case, the arise of confusion and misinformation of its legitimacy and recognition can thus be avoided.

    I would not loose sleep over such a dignified disconnect.

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