In the wake of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s pilgrimage to Washington, Australia is edging ever closer to publicly choosing between China and the US in its Asia security policy. This may sound like “fake news” but it may well become reality — at least in China’s eyes — and with the choice comes consequences.
The straw that breaks the camel’s back as far as China is concerned may well be a decision to undertake a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) targeting China’s claims in the South China Sea. The Turnbull administration may continue to publicly differentiate its economic policy and its strategic policy towards China as well as continue its “balanced rhetoric” — as The Australian’s Greg Sheridan calls it. The idea that Australia can compartmentalize these two dimensions of security is a delusion. Economic wealth in a democracy is an underpinning of security — military or otherwise. China will probably react rather negatively to Australia’s actions, setting off a downward spiral in both economic and diplomatic relations. An immediate response could be a well-publicized and embarrassing surrounding of the FONOP by a flotilla of Chinese military and civilian vessels.
The US has now declared China a “revisionist power” wanting to change the US-led “international order.” It has also declared China a “strategic competitor,” sending a clear message to China as well as to US friends and allies. Its new National Defense Strategy calls for expanding and transforming Washington’s network of alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific into a “networked security architecture.” So, US pressure on Australia to do more to support the US strategy to contain China is steadily mounting.
To counter China’s rise, the US has proposed the Quad — a potential security arrangement between the US, India, Japan, and Australia. As part of what is perceived by China and others as its China containment strategy, the US military is pressuring other prospective members of the Quad to join its FONOPs in the South China Sea. Indeed, US President Donald Trump told Turnbull that “we’d love to have Australia involved [in FONOPs].” Australia is sure to come under continuing pressure to choose sides, especially from the new US Ambassador-designate, the hawkish Admiral Harry Harris whom China views as a nemesis.
For US ally Australia, any pretense to neutrality has been compromised by its facilitation of China-focused US intelligence-gathering flights and its hosting of the rotational deployment of US spy planes, warships, and troops. Indeed, China has previously signaled Australia to physically stay out of the South China Sea dispute and to not provide increased use of military facilities to the US lest it become a potential “target” in a military conflict with the US. But now Australia may — in China’s eyes — “go all in.”
An Australian FONOP would send an unmistakable political signal that Australia is siding with the US to uphold the existing largely Western-built “international order.” According to Michael Green, a former security advisor to US President Barack Obama, “Freedom-of-navigation exercises demonstrate that China’s coercive tactics will not lead to success. In a strategic sense it would be a demonstration of willpower and solidarity.” Indeed, that is how China will see it.
The national debate pits realists who foresee or accept the inevitability of China’s dominance and influence in Asia and on its society and values against idealists who are “willing to risk the economic benefits to preserve Western values and existing international order.”
Ironically, an Australian FONOP in the South China Sea would be unnecessary — at least legally. The supposed China threat to freedom of navigation by commercial vessels is a devious “red herring” hyped by the US. It purposely conflates that universally supported concept with the more legally and politically controversial “freedom” to undertake military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) probes. China has never threatened freedom of navigation of commercial vessels and it is unlikely to do so in peacetime. China does object to the latter for a variety of reasons.
The broader US interpretation of this principle has little support in Southeast Asia. Indeed, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia also have restrictions on foreign warships operating in waters under their jurisdiction without their consent. As Australian analyst Sam Bateman points out, even Australia supports some restrictions on freedom of navigation such as compulsory pilotage in the Torres Strait. Moreover, even if Australia wants to challenge China’s narrow interpretation of freedom of navigation or to specifically challenge its claims, that can be effectively and sufficiently demonstrated by verbal and written diplomatic communiqués. These are the communication methods used by many countries.
Australia does not have to mimic America and demonstrate its objection to China’s claims with a show of force. Indeed, diplomatic protest is more consonant with the letter and spirit of the UN Charter. If Australia does undertake a FONOP, it will be interpreted as a political gesture. Already, China’s Global Times — an influential newspaper — has charged that Turnbull is making a “U-turn” in his China Policy.
Initially, Australia declined to join US FONOPs in the South China Sea. But its newly released White Paper on foreign policy characterizes the South China Sea disputes as “a major fault line in the regional order.” Some say this is just a polite version of the US Defense Department document vis-à-vis China. The White Paper also proclaims Australia’s intention to “conduct cooperative activities with other countries consistent with international law.” Its Chief of Navy Tim Barret has called for concrete action against China’s Navy in the South China Sea. This certainly gives the impression that Australia is seriously considering joining US FONOPs or undertaking its own.
So, Australia is now between a rock and a hard place. China is the most important trading partner for Australia, particularly as an export market for their raw materials. Australia is also the second-largest recipient of Chinese direct investment. As Australian analyst Michael Wesley puts it: “We’re facing an uncomfortable fact: that the major source of our economic prosperity is potentially in a position to challenge our most sacred values. It forces us to think about potentially forgoing some of that prosperity to stand up for what we believe in.” The national debate pits realists who foresee or accept the inevitability of China’s dominance and influence in Asia and on its society and values against idealists who are “willing to risk the economic benefits to preserve Western values and existing international order.”
According to Julie Bishop, Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs: “What we are seeking to do is balance against bad behavior. The key is a rules-based order.” But now, in the glare of Trump’s public urging, Bishop has indicated that Australia may resist US pressure to join its FONOPs. Obviously, this decision is being debated at the top levels of government.
If Australia decides to undertake a FONOP, it must be ready for the consequences. They are likely to be significant, especially in the economic sphere. On the other hand, if push comes to shove in the South China Sea between the US and China, Australia as a US ally will be expected to weigh in kinetically on its side. As skeptical Australian analyst Hugh White asks: “Does anyone imagine that Australia would jeopardize trade with China to support America?” This is no longer a rhetorical or hypothetical question. Indeed, Australia must prepare for the blow-back of an “Americanization” of its China policy.