International Analysis

Australia sides with U.S. in South China Sea dispute

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U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in early 2019 (image by The White House via Wikimedia Commons)

As tensions rise in the South China Sea, Australia has closely engaged with Washington's anti-China policies, writes Dr William Briggs

FOREIGN MINISTER Marise Payne has been lauded for showing Australia’s independent spirit. We have apparently shown the U.S. that we will not be drawn into any new "coalition of the willing" as America begins to shift its China policy from "containment" to something akin to "roll-back". 

It would be nice if it were the case but is it really so?

On the one hand, Australia is being praised for not toeing the U.S. line about intrusions into disputed waters within the 12-mile zone off the new Chinese "islands". On the other hand, Australia has loudly declared any claims by China to waters inside its ‘nine-dash line’ as being illegal. It all needs a little thought.

Australia has made a rather dramatic change in policy and ditched any pretence at diplomatic language. There had been a relatively measured approach, whereby all sides to the disputed waters were urged to show restraint. From urging restraint to denunciations of illegality is quite a step and yet it is in lockstep with shifts in American strategic doctrine, as revealed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

We are witnessing a major change in American foreign policy toward China. The days of engagement, from Richard Nixon’s visit when China was seen as a means of boosting profitability for American business, shifted dramatically when China began its rise. The line became one of containment, but this is no longer enough. Pompeo signalled a new approach; "roll-back" and with it an alarming echo to its policy in the days immediately before the Korean War.

Australia’s declaration of the illegality of China’s claims is an endorsement of the American policy shift. States tend to justify actions based on the absurd claim of "national interest". It is generally impossible to separate national interest from economic interest, so how does this play out in the South China Sea?

At the core is the all but universally recognised fact that the U.S. is economically on the slide and China’s star is on the rise. The U.S. will never accept this truth and will do all in its power to ensure that the sun does not set on its"‘empire". China, for its part is doing all that it can to facilitate its economic rise to hegemony.

Geography, alongside economic interest, plays a major role in this conflict.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 80 per cent of global trade is transported by sea and fully 33 per cent of all global shipping passes through the South China Sea.

All of this must pass through the Straits of Malacca which is a pivot connecting the South China Sea with the Pacific and Indian oceans. Sixty per cent of the total of China’s global trade must use these sea-lanes. The significance of this waterway cannot be ignored and is certainly not being ignored by either China or the U.S. China, not surprisingly, wants to ensure that it has uninterrupted access to these shipping lanes. The U.S. wants to have the capacity to turn on or off the flow of shipping.

Australia’s new position of declaring China’s claims as "illegal" is in line with its more robust pro-American stance, despite its claims to be standing apart from joining any "coalition of the willing".

There is very little by way of principle in any of this. If there was any doubt as to what is motivating the frenetic actions around this region, then the U.S. State Department clarified things quite nicely in 2019. The Department has estimated that oil and gas reserves worth $3.6 trillion are under those disputed waters. Should China gain access to those resources, then the balance of economic power shifts further away from the United States.

But if principle counts for little, facts also have little value. The artificial islands have captured the imaginations of so much of the world’s media and have been used as a trigger for anti-Chinese rhetoric.

While Chinese motivations might not be entirely benign, a chronology of events needs to be considered. Former US President Obama famously declared the American "pivot to Asia" in 2012. It was to include a massive shift of U.S. military capacity to the region in order to "contain" China. The building program that has led to these controversial islands began in 2014. Are they then offensive or defensive in nature?

All of this makes the region a dangerous one. The dangers are real and stem in large part from the fact that the U.S. is reluctant to accept the reality of an ascendant China. Its military doctrine has undergone a significant shift away from focusing on an almost eternal "war on terror" to one that recommits military capacity to preparedness for "great power" rivalry. Consequently, the U.S. is spending a trillion dollars in upgrading its nuclear arsenal, including the mass production of low-yield nuclear weapons.

Now that a suitable enemy has been found, and strategic doctrines have been altered, then so too has the language of America’s principal ally in the region changed in tone. China is now described as acting in an "illegal" manner in pursuing its perceived national interests. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been active in using this rhetoric. He has assured the U.S. of where Australia would line up. Australia, he reminded Washington, was “a trusted partner of the United States” but “we don’t leave it to the US. We do our share of heavy lifting in this partnership. We lead. We pull our weight.”

To make matters worse, the rhetoric is being backed up by actions.

Foreign Minister Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds reminded us in late July that:

'Our $270 billion investment in defence capability over the next decade, including in more potent, longer-range capabilities [would] allow us to make even stronger contributions to the alliance and achieve greater combined effects with U.S. forces to deter aggression and respond with military force.'

The pursuit of "national interest" be it American, Chinese or Australian for that matter, can only end badly. China can be portrayed as a threat, but the facts remain problematic. The expansionism and aggression that the U.S. and Australia so freely describe are not all that visible. Yes, China is a threat to the economic domination of the U.S., but some evidence of a military threat is still a long way off. Claims to parts of the South China Sea might be hard to justify, but flotillas of U.S., Japanese and Australian warships so close to China is quite another issue.

Is it any wonder that given such a state of play, the hands of the atomic scientists’ "doomsday clock" are now set at just 100 seconds to midnight?

Dr William Briggs is a political economist whose special areas of interest lies in political theory. He has been, variously, a teacher, journalist and political activist.

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