The Australian “dilemma” when it comes to cooperation with the US

BaselineThough Australia has no sovereignty claim in the South China Sea, given its location in the South Pacific, the nation has very practical benefits in this region. Therefore, in recent years, Canberra has increased strong statements and actions, unilaterally, bilaterally and multilaterally, to protect its interests amidst complicated developments in the South China Sea.

According to experts, Australia’s major benefits include: 1/ The geostrategic proximity of the South China Sea to the South Pacific; 2/ Australia's geopolitical importance and its increasing “Asian-oriented” thinking in the 21st century; 3/ the interwoven relationship of Australia's interests and strategies with Asia-Pacific countries, of which the relationships between Canberra and ASEAN, and powers like the US and China, are the most important.

That is not to mention the economic benefits related to the South China Sea, which alone deserve Australia’s special attention. Given that over 60% of its annual exports and 40% of imports pass via the area, Australia has to be particularly interested in free trade and freedom of navigation in the region.

Therefore, China’s maritime “expansion” in recent years, especially encroachment, embellishment and the “militarization” of occupied features in the South China Sea, has threatened the region’s freedom of navigation. This forces Australia to play a more active role in the South China Sea. Canberra has regularly and openly called on other nations and parties to respect international law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and actively taken unilateral actions to maintain freedom of navigation. Accordingly, given that the free and open maritime routes in the South China Sea are an urgent requirement for Australia’s prosperous development, any force that dominates the South China Sea will hurt Australia. Since as early as 1980s, Australia has been carrying out aerial surveillance operations in the South China Sea on its own. Although it does not conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) like the US, Australia regularly carries out naval patrols, exercises and naval visits to other countries in the region.

Even more so, Australia has many times sent reconnaissance aircrafts to the area near the Spratlys, sometimes once or twice per week. However, that seems not enough as the South China Sea situation remains tense and complicated. Australia is forced to consider the path of cooperation with other countries, including the US, to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. This is totally logical, aligned with Australia’s national interests and also consistent with its position as the US long-standing, important and official ally in the Asia-Pacific region. In the past, Australia has stood side by side with the US and the UK in WWI, WWII and other conflicts in many parts of the world.

Today, Australia’s role among US regional allies has become increasingly important, especially after the US announced its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, the key focuses of which is the US calling on allies and key partners such as Japan, Australia and India to jointly ensure freedom of navigation, including in the South China Sea.

Recently, Australia has actively joined the United States and the international community to support freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, condemning activities that cause tensions in the region. During the official visit to Vietnam from August 22 to 24, 2019, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had talks with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and discussed the South China Sea situation. The two sides expressed grave concern over developments in the South China Sea, including the reclamation and “militarization” of the disputed features. The leaders also shared their worries about the hindrance to oil and gas projects that have been carried out in the South China Sea for a long time. In particular, the Australian side emphasized the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight, compliance with international law and maintenance of a rules-based order; called on parties to refrain themselves from actions that may further complicate the situation.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison affirmed it was important that states continued to resolve their disputes peacefully, without the use or threats of force, in accordance with international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 (UNCLOS 1982). He also called on the Code of Conduct (COC) between ASEAN and China to fully comply with international law, especially UNCLOS 1982, without prejudice to the interests of third parties or the rights of other states in accordance with international law, and support the current regional architecture.

Shortly after Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to Viet Nam and his statements regarding the South China Sea, on August 26, 2019, the US Department of Defense also expressed deep concern about China’s “coercive interference” in Vietnam’s long-standing oil and gas exploration activities in the South China Sea, and its continuous violations of the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said: “Through repeated provocative actions to assert the “nine-dash line”, Beijing is inhibiting ASEAN members from accessing over $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves, while contributing to instability and the risk of conflict. This behaviour contrasts sharply with the rules-based order we have all worked together to build for more than 70 years.”

The US Department of Defense also stated that these activities directly contradicted China’s commitments as pledged by China’s Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2019 that China would follow the “path of peaceful development.” China’s actions stand in contrast to the US vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms.

Such separate but similar statements from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defense Secretary Mark Esper showed that the two sides had shared views on this issue. US-Australia cooperation in maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea will serve both countries' interests.

While Australia is still hesitant about whether to conduct unilateral or bilateral FONOP operations, or to take no action, international media reported that US Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the US deployment of ground-launched medium-range missiles in Asia, which does not exclude rocket placement in Australia. After the 2+2 Foreign and Defence Secretaries’ Dialogue between the US and Australia on August 4, 2019, Mr. Esper affirmed that the US was a Pacific nation, thus must not overlook China’s use of force to change the regional status quo, and said US allies shared the same view. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne revealed that the US planned to spend more than $200 million to expand the naval base in Darwin, where 2,500 US marines were currently stationed.

If the US deploys missiles to Northern Australia, the military bases in southern China will be within range of US missile as the distance from Darwin to Shanghai is about 5,000 km and only about 3,000 km to illegally deployed Chinese military facilities in the South China Sea. The above action shows that the US attaches great importance to Australia in its strategy of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in general, and in ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in particular.

However, US pressure and manipulation could put Australia in a “dilemma”, since even Australian analysts are concerned Canberra is in a state of “strategic ambiguity”. As the US closest ally in the region, Australia will be under increasing pressure from the US to increase its actual presence in the South China Sea, but the country has yet to find a suitable counter-policy. Namely, there is the matter of joint FONOPs with the US in the South China Sea. On one hand, Australia fears abandonment by the US if it does not work alongside its allies, but on the other hand, they are anxious about the possibility of being embroiled in a conflict of unpredictable losses. A member of the Australian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee acknowledges that Australia's participation in FONOPs could anger the Asian “giant”.

This concern is understandable given Australia’s strong economic ties with China. Two-way trade with China accounts for nearly 12% of Australia’s GDP, or US$200 billion. The slightest tremble in the Chinese economy is enough to make the Australian economy tumble. Experts predict that China's worst economic scenario could halve Australia’s GDP growth, resulting in more than half a million Australian workers losing their jobs. If tensions between the two countries occur, China could resort to various measures of retaliation that would cause damage to Australia.

In fact, after Australia removed China’s Huawei Group from its 5G network development project since February 2019, Beijing has made it difficult for Australia’s main export product, coal. The amount of Australian coal that cannot be cleared at some Chinese ports accounts for 13% of the country’s coal exports, sometimes up to 15 million tones. In addition, China can restrict imports of many other Australian goods, cut Chinese investment in Australia, or simply cut the number of Chinese students going to Australia. All such measures are directly aimed at the Australian people’s livelihood.

However, in face of China’s increased activities to realize its monopoly ambition in the South China Sea and infringement on the sovereignty and interests of countries in the region and beyond, including those of Australia, Canberra, as an important US ally in the Asia-Pacific region who have steadfastly supported the US's leadership of the Indo-Pacific order and a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, may increase its support and coordination with Washington's activities in the South China Sea.

Many experts predict that the two countries’ joint operation in the South China Sea is only a matter of time. However, as Australia has such a close economic and trade relationship with China, cooperation with the US in ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea requires careful calculation. Australia must come up with a solution that aligns with Canberra’s “preventive diplomacy” policy, so as to maintain the close alliance with the US while effectively deal with China’s “encroachment” on matters of interests to Australia.