Australia: A Fine Line in the South China Sea
Australia’s relationship with China and the United States of America (USA) are becoming increasingly complicated. As its largest trading partner in the Pacific, China is an integral component in Australia’s economic prosperity and domestic security. However, China’s actions in the South China Sea, coupled with Australia’s longstanding security relationship with the USA threaten the delicate balance in the Australasian region and greater Pacific. In order to avoid escalating tensions and isolation in the international world, Australia must be a force of stability, caution and arbitration between superpowers and regional powers in the South China Sea.
Overview of dispute in the South China Sea
The South China Sea is a heavily disputed region within the Pacific Ocean. Strategically and economically, the South China Sea is a vital commercial gateway for China, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, The Philippines and South Korea. Moreover, the South China Sea may also contain potentially lucrative depositories of oil and gas. China has asserted a historical claim to the South China Sea and the islands within the area. If the South China Sea falls under the sway of China, it would give the Chinese control over the majority of merchant shipping passing through the Pacific. This would give China the ability to target merchant vessels and cut off Japan and South Korea from crucial fuel and raw material imports. Japan also asserts a claim to the South China Sea along with several other Pacific nations. Tensions within the region came to a climax when it was discovered that China was dramatically increasing its naval presence in the South China Sea and constructing artificial islands equipped with airbases, hangars docking facilities and habitation blocks across the region. The extensive installation of Chinese military infrastructure prompted the USA to challenge China’s maritime claims with substantial shows of military force. Tensions have steadily escalated between China and the USA and its South-East Asian allies.
Despite Australia’s significant trading relationship with China, it remains closely allied with the USA and heavily suspicious of Chinese intentions in the South China Sea. The USA has recently expanded its military presence in Northern Australia, installing bases intended for the deployment of US Marine Corps. Australia has also hosted numerous joint naval and aerial exercises with the USA and Indonesia. It is almost certain that if tension in the South China Sea spilled into outright conflict, Australia would support the USA and its South-East Asian allies. This support would likely manifest in a logistical capacity; Northern Australia would act as a staging ground, refuelling station and operational centre. However, Australian military forces would likely play a role in any conflict, supporting naval, bombing or interdiction action against China.
In order to avoid such a devastating and drawn out conflict, it is imperative that Australia is not drawn into overtly hostile action against China. Individuals with the United States Government have been accused of inciting open hostility with China in overly aggressive speeches and press conferences. Australia must act as a mitigating and mediating force between all regional powers in the Pacific and abroad. Australia’s prosperity and the security of its people are reliant on the safe passage of merchant vessels, trade with Pacific partners and security relationships with powerful, likeminded countries. Maintaining these conditions will require a balanced, multilateral approach to the complicated issue of ownership of the South China Sea and Australia must lead the way.
Author: Alexander Burns – Australia