Australia Has a Larger Role to Play in the South China Sea

Both the tone and substance of South China Sea discussions in Australian policy circles has undergone an important shift in recent months. What was previously a second-tier security concern to be watched closely and engaged diplomatically, but at a safe distance, has become a heated discussion about concrete responses. Australian policymakers are as concerned as anyone about China’s breakneck land reclamation in the Spratly Islands and the threats, both legal and military, they pose to the global commons. Australian officials and thinkers are seriously considering options to contest Chinese assertiveness, in tandem with the United States and other partners, which would have seemed distant possibilities a year ago.

Defense Minister Kevin Andrews was dragged into the contentious discussion about proposed U.S. patrols in waters and airspace near some of China’s artificial islands when he was asked on May 31 about Australian forces joining such “freedom of navigation” operations. Andrews insisted that the United States has not made a request for joint patrols, but he did not dismiss the possibility either. In fact, the defense minister asserted that Australia has long conducted patrols of its own over South China Sea waters (though he did not say directly over the Spratlys) and would continue to do so regardless of any possible Chinese objections. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal cited unnamed U.S. and Australian officials who confirmed that the United States has been sounding out lower levels of the Australian government about undertaking joint freedom of navigation patrols.

The suggestion that Australia could follow the United States in taking a more assertive role in contesting Chinese claims in the South China Sea, or at least their ambiguity, has provoked heated disagreement within Australian policy circles. Many of the detractors of greater Australian involvement have either willfully or mistakenly misinterpreted U.S. proposals, most recently regarding the scope and purpose of freedom of navigation operations. And they have often overstated the potential consequences of Australian involvement and the degree to which Washington is pushing Canberra to act. Even worse, they are wrong in framing the issue as one of Australia stumbling into a contest between China and the United States—it is a matter of the entire region’s national interests, and Australia’s more than most.

As a maritime nation and Indo-Pacific middle power, the protection of the global maritime commons, international rules and norms at sea, and freedom of navigation and overflight are vital Australian interests. Australia should be gravely concerned by the ambiguity of China’s claims, especially in light of its reclamation activities, for the same reasons that others like India, Japan, and non-claimant Southeast Asian states are. Who controls what bit of dry or submerged sand or coral is not a vital interest. But seeing an Asia Pacific in which an emergent China plays by the same rules and norms as everyone else, not one in which might makes right, certainly is.

So Canberra should have every incentive to engage in joint freedom of navigation patrols, within narrow limits, with the United States and potentially other like-minded partners such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Washington must convince regional partners to work not just with it, but with each other in peacefully contesting Chinese assertiveness and finding creative means to pressure Beijing to clarify its claims in accordance with international law. Allowing a narrative to take hold that the South China Sea is a contest between China and the United States is counterproductive; claimants and interested parties like Australia must help send the message that it is about all of them.

Australia is already playing a helpful role in capacity building around the region. But it is time that Canberra step into a more active role, just as Tokyo has done. For example, small numbers of Australian troops take part in joint training and exercises such as the U.S.-led Balikatan in the Philippines, where Australia is the only other country aside from the United States with a visiting forces agreement. But much more could be done to help build Filipino capacity on everything from search and rescue to maritime domain awareness.

More concrete steps by Canberra to contest Chinese actions in the South China Sea do not need to be framed as overtly adversarial, nor do they negate the importance of the diplomatic heft Australia has already been bringing to bear on the topic. And they definitely do not need to follow the United States’ lead, nor should they. Where joint activities with the United States make sense, they should be pursued. But Australian policymakers are seeking options to respond to the South China Sea disputes because they directly infringe on Australian national interests, not because of pressure from an ally. Cooperation with a range of actors would signal that loud and clear to Beijing, which could benefit everyone.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative