Will Australia Challenge China?

Australia has revealed its interest in preparing for a naval sail-through in the South China Sea, should the need arise. The South China Sea dispute has, thus far, been limited to the claimants in the territorial conflict and the United States as an international counselor of sorts.

While other states have commented on the developments in the dispute, most have refrained from making any concrete commitments or statements on the matter. The opinions coming out of Australia now prove that the South China Sea issue is indeed shaping up to be a large conflict and is likely to take on a pointedly-international flavor.

U.S. Sends Warships To South China Sea

On Tuesday, October 27, 2015, the United States Navy sent in a guided missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, inside the 12-nautical mile radius of one of China’s newly constructed islands in the Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago. While the U.S. Navy ship did not challenge China or do anything than execute a sail-past in the region, the maneuver created international news because it directly challenges China’s assertions of sovereignty over its claimed territories in the South China Sea.

The U.S. has criticized China’s unchecked land reclamation and island-building activities in the South China Sea vociferously over the past two years and is amongst the many states that refuse to recognize Beijing’s territorial claims and its argument that the historical nine-dash line seen in an ancient map of China provides a legal basis for its sovereign right to the region.

In keeping with its proclamations, China maintains that the U.S. has acted illegally, violating the sovereign integrity of China’s rightful territory. Zhang Yesui, the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs for China, has panned the U.S. move, calling it “extremely irresponsible”. Beijing has called on Washington to “immediately correct its mistake”. Reports in Xinhua state that China is poised to strike back, quoting Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesman Yang Yujun as having said, “We will take any measures necessary to safeguard our security.”

The U.S., for its part, maintains that it actions are in keeping with International Law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Washington states that “innocent passage” is lawful under the aforementioned regulations so as long as a ship merely sails through the territorial waters of another state; in such case, the seafaring party is not required to notify or seek the permission of the state whose waters it is passing through.

That said, Washington has also shared that it planned the maneuver to convey to China that it does not acknowledge China’s territorial declarations in the South China Sea. The U.S. prioritizes the “freedom of navigation” and has routinely conducted such operations historically in cases wherever the freedom of movement in disputed waters has been threatened.

Yu Maochun, a U.S. Naval Academy authority on China, has opined that until a formal resolution regarding the South China Sea dispute is arrived at, actions like the latest U.S. decision “will continue unabated”.

Australia Prepares Contingency Plan For The South China Sea

Defense and military officials in Australia have shared that the state is looking into conducting a naval mission in the South China Sea. The Royal Australian Navy has been instructed to prepare for such an exercise should the government in Canberra deem it necessary. While Australia is prepared to take action against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea should Beijing’s assertions become more pronounced, Canberra has not authorized a sail-through just yet. The current move is a preparatory one intended to get Australia’s pieces in place without tipping the balance either way.

Given that Australia and the United States are close allies, it stands to reason that Canberra might want to support Washington’s decision to challenge China’s land reclamation and artificial island-building activities in the South China Sea.

According to an Australian government official, “Australia has been looking at options”. The defense and strategy experts in Australia have possibly realized the need to introduce a contingency plan regarding the South China Sea should the dispute escalate and require global actors to intervene and/ or take a position on the matter.

Even though Australia has not sanctioned the implementation of any plans yet, insider sources confirmed that the country is developing a military strategy especially geared towards the South China Sea. The proposed military action may include aerial patrols over and/or deployment of the Royal Australian Navy’s maritime vessels into the regions that China claims as part of its sovereign territory.

The government has not formally taken a call on the issue as yet, as confirmed by several Australian officials. According to an officer inside Australia’s Defence Ministry, “At this stage, it’s only been looking at what we could do”. Sources share that these plans have been in the works for a while now and that Canberra has been working on a contingency plan ever since the South China Sea dispute escalated.

Even as Australian officials have shared knowledge about Australia’s preparations, an official statement is yet to come out of Canberra regarding the same. Even though the Defence Minister for Australia, Marise Payne, has been contacted for a formal confirmation of the news, the office has not responded. In an interaction with the media, Ms. Payne rejected the claims that Australia plans to confront China and challenge its territorial assertions in the South China Sea.

Australia’s position regarding the dispute and its consequent effects on the Sino-U.S. balance is a uniquely tenuous one: one the one hand, Australia has been a long-standing ally of the United States and expressed its “strong support” for the American cause of “freedom of navigation”; on the other hand, China is Australia’s biggest trade partner and pursuing a strong relationship with Beijing is in Canberra’s strategic interest.

The Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China has not responded to requests for comments on the possibility of Australia entering the South China Sea. The United States Embassy in Canberra has not been available for contact either.

Following The U.S.’ Lead: Are Others Headed To The South China Sea?

Following the U.S.’ decision to send its ships into the region, close to China’s islands, the West’s allies- such as Australia- may decide to take more concrete action in the South China Sea dispute after all. While countries the world over have criticized China’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea and its tactics therein, such as building man-made islands to bolster its claims of sovereign territory or installing military bases on said outposts, most states have refrained from making a foreign policy change or military agenda regarding the matter.

The South China Sea has, by-and-large- remained a regional dispute with possible international fallout. Given the strategic location of the South China Sea and the immensely significant role it plays in global shipping and trade, any decisive conclusion to the conflict is sure to impact the global community. Should China assume unchallenged control of the South China Sea, it will effectively control a majority of the world’s trade routes, naval programs, military movement, economic potential and natural resources.

In light of that, even though the disputants in the South China Sea disagreement are all South Asian states, the results or resolution of the conflict will impact the international community as a whole.

China, Australia Prep For Joint Naval Drills

Despite growing international concern and Australia’s obvious discomfort at China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea, the two countries continue to maintain diplomatic ties thus far. The Royal Australian Navy and the People’s Liberation Army-Navy are scheduled to conduct joint naval military drills next week. The live firing drill is scheduled to continue as planned, despite the latest developments and the growing tensions between China and the United States. Australia is contributing two frigates to the exercise.

Marise Payne confirmed, “HMAS ships Stuart and Arunta will visit Zhanjiang, in Guangdong province, China, soon during their north Asia deployment”. “There have been no changes or delays to the schedule of the HMAS Arunta and HMAS Stuart since the United States activity in the South China Sea on 27 October 2015,” the official insisted.

Payne expressed Australia’s respect for both sides of the issue, stating that Australia holds “a legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea”. The defence minister continued, “As they do now, Australian vessels and aircraft will continue to exercise rights under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight.”


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