AUSTRALIA’S relationship with China is getting increasingly complex. There’s no denying it.
On one hand, China is our biggest trading partner, and we’re mutually reliant on one another.
On the other, we have a duty to support the United States in opposing the rising superpower’s claims to the South China Sea.
Last month, one of the United States’ most senior ex-military officers Admiral Dennis Blair called on the Australian Defence Force to participate in joint military exercises with the US in the South China Sea.
“I think Australian and American ships should exercise together in the South China Sea, showing that, when they need to, they will send their armed forces in international airspace and water,” he told the ABC’s Four Corners.
“We count on Australian mates being there when serious issues are at stake.”
But with the increase in threats we’ve received from the country’s government and media over the past year, are we just damaging one of our most crucial relationships?
WHY AUSTRALIA IS INVOLVED IN THE DISPUTE
Many Australians remain concerned about whether China’s rise will negatively impact us. But it’s not as simple as just pulling back and “keeping out” of the conflict.
Professor Jonathan Odom from the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii stressed Australia has a vital role to play in the South China Sea dispute.
Asked whether it’s really necessary for the west to maintain a presence in the region — which it has no territorial interests in — Odom said the United States’ involvement has kept things peaceful over the past few decades.
As an alliance with the US, Australia can take partial credit for this peace.
“That presence serves as a deterrence,” he told news.com.au in a conference. Speaking of our allies in the region — Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, he said “it shows that we’re there, that we’re able to respond if we’re needed to.
“I’d say part of the reason there hasn’t been a conflict in the Asia-Pacific region is because we’ve been able to provide that kind of security insurance, and as a result you see the Asia-Pacific region has flourished economically over the past few decades.
“I think, in that respect, we’ve been able to help ensure conditions of stability without some sort of ulterior motive.”
Odom said countries like Australia, which have greater military capabilities, have a larger responsibility.
“A lot of countries don’t have blue-water navies,” he said. “Australia is one of the countries that does have a blue-water navy, and so they do have a little more responsibility to use it when it’s appropriate in the international community.
“I know Australia has a strong economic relationship with China. I’m not saying everything needs to go in one particular direction, and destroy international relationships, but at the same time there are certain issues that — on a matter of principal — you have to stand up for.
“Freedom of the sea is one of those things. I take that principal very seriously, and so I’m always advocating that everyone that’s capable should do whatever they can to preserve that freedom, whether it’s through diplomatic protests, public statements or operational activities.”
WHERE DO OUR POLTICIANS STAND?
As we speak, our politicians are grappling with whether we’re doing enough to maintain stability in the South China Sea.
The federal opposition has recently sought to clarify its controversial position on this.
Speaking to Sky News earlier this week, Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles confirmed a Labor government would allow Australia’s military to conduct freedom-of-navigation exercises in the disputed region.
“A significant operation of that kind would ultimately include the approval of government,” he said.
He wouldn’t confirm or deny whether it would authorise freedom of navigation operations within 12 nautical miles (22km) of the artificial islands.
But the Federal Government has deemed Labor’s position on the South China Sea “all over the shop”.
“The challenge for Labor is to come up with clear and coherent policy, they have now had four or five pronouncements on what Labor would do in relation to the South China Sea,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told Sky News.
“The importance of dealing with great powers like to China is to be clear and consistent in your messaging and Labor’s all over the shop.”
Ms Bishop has explicitly ruled out an exercise within the 12-mile nautical zone.
HOW AUSTRALIA’S PRESENCE MAKES A DIFFERENCE
So far, Australia’s involvement in the conflict has been relatively low-risk.
It’s understood the country is yet to sail within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese islands, and despite occasional threats from China, they don’t see our military as particularly provocative.
Odom commended Australia’s role in the conflict, despite the fact that Australia hasn’t nearly acted as strongly as its US ally in the region.
“One thing I’ve observed is that, even if Australia isn’t doing Freedom of Navigation exercises, they’ve been conducting activities in the South China Sea that protect Freedom of Navigation. In the past year I’ve read where one of the leaders of your airforce said that every one of the flights Australia flies through the South China Sea is challenged on radio by the Chinese. And yet thoser flights continue on and proceed as operational.
“It’s still having a secondary effect of preserving the freedom of the seas. The primary purpose might be to collect information that will raise maritime awareness, but it’s a secondary positive effect. I think that’s a good thing.”
He emphasised that Australia’s presence is important, even if it’s symbolic.
He also commended the country’s involvement in the international tribunal earlier this year, which rendered Beijing’s claims to the disputed region invalid.
“To continually state that the tribunal ruling was entirely legitimate, and to call on both parties to comply — that’s a vital thing. Australia has an important role in the region in that they’re not the United States. There’s always potential for the narrative to be, ‘This is the US versus China’. It’s not.
“The statements that Australia has made, the activities that they’ve engaged in, I think they’re good. One of my biggest concerns is — not just with Australia, but with a lot of other nations — is to continue that steady drum beat, and (continually remind) that these are important issues.
“Some nations are concerned that over time it’ll create friction with another nation, like China, so they gradually stop using those talking points, and all of a sudden it’s like it doesn’t even matter anymore. So one of the most important things, in my opinion, is that the tribunal ruling doesn’t just come a blip on the screen. Rather, it’s a vital point that can serve the way ahead.”
Whether that extends to more direct military involvement is yet to be determined.