Australia’s role in peace in the South China Sea
Australia has a role to play in challenging China’s illegal ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea, but it must carefully consider how it does so, writes Aristyo Rizka Darmawan.
A recent incident where the Australian warship HMAS Parramatta was closely followed by a Chinese warship in the South and East China Sea has raised questions about Australia’s role in the disputed area.
During the interception, Chinese military assets, including a guided-missile destroyer and a nuclear-powered attack submarine, reportedly warned the Australian warship that it was in “Chinese territorial waters” and told him that he “had to go”.
Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles claimed the “regional presence deployment” carried out by HMAS Parramatta was routine, citing “freedom of navigation” and the “rules-based global order”, and highlighting Australia’s role in a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. .
But does Australia really need to do this? Regional presence deployments have their advantages, but they also have their drawbacks.
On the one hand, the defense minister’s argument is fair enough. Australia and its partners have the freedom to challenge China’s illegal and excessive claims to the South China Sea. In the 2016 South China Sea arbitration, the tribunal made it clear that the “nine-dash line” claimed by China had no legal basis under international law.
Illegal practices like the nine-dash line must be challenged to protect international law, and regional presence deployments do. In other words, there must be countries that are willing to explicitly challenge illegal claims. This practice is known as “persistent objector”.
Some might suggest leaving that to the United States, but if the United States Navy has been doing similar exercises for many years, these may lack legitimacy, since the United States is not a party to the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Australia, on the other hand, is party to UNCLOS. This gives the Australian Defense Force a stronger hand internationally when the country says its regional presence deployments are to defend UNCLOS.
Still, Australia must approach its role as a persistent objector with caution.
Any military exercise in the South China Sea must be precisely calculated to challenge China without provoking responses that could escalate into live fire or even open war in the South China Sea.
As things stand, some experts believe that the current possibilities for miscalculation are too high. Law of the sea expert Professor Donald Rothwell noted that Australian assets often navigate these waters without allied support – if things were to go sour, Australia could be caught off guard.
Additionally, Australia needs to consider how ASEAN countries respond to regional presence deployments. Some countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, tend to host more extra-regional energy engagement in the region.
On the other hand, other countries, such as Indonesia, tend to be more cautious about external military presence. They fear it will destabilize the region and increase tensions for little benefit.
That might be a reasonable concern. After all, China reacted negatively to Australia’s increased military commitment. For example, an Australian P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane was recently targeted by a laser from a Chinese warship while flying over the northern approaches to Australia.
Additionally, while Australia is well positioned to be a persistent objector as a party to UNCLOS, existing tensions on other issues between China and Australia may affect that role. Chinese policymakers could raise questions about opposition intentions in the South China Sea if other tensions, such as trade policy, escalate.
All in all, while its role as a persistent objector in the South China Sea is reasonable and important, Australia must be very careful not to provoke an open escalation in the disputed area.
He should challenge China’s illegal claim, but acknowledge that regional presence deployments are not the only way. Given sensitivities to other tensions and concerns among ASEAN countries, it should combine its military operations with other actions to clarify its intentions.
FFor example, in 2020, many countries sent diplomatic notes to the UN Secretary-General asking China to uphold the 2016 court ruling in response to Malaysia’s extended continental shelf proposal. It is also a form of challenge and action such as this may expand Australia’s objection to the nine-dash claims.
While the Australian objection in the South China Sea is significant, it carries risks and the worst-case scenario could see China openly escalate. With so much at stake, Australia needs to be very careful and take a balanced approach.