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Australia is risking its own neck for the US in the South China Sea – has it stopped to ask why?

2022-08-02 10:42:35       source:South China Morning Post

July 22, 2022

The recent confrontation involving an Australian surveillance plane and Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea is just a glimpse of what could come from Canberra serving as a US “point man” in the region.


Indeed, as the US-China struggle for domination in the South China Sea becomes ever more dangerous, Australia finds itself at the edge of an intensifying political and military whirlpool. Australia needs to re-evaluate its interests and policies lest it be unwittingly sucked in.


On June 5, the Australian Defence Department stated that, 10 days earlier on May 26, “a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8A maritime surveillance aircraft was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft during a routine maritime surveillance activity in international airspace in the South China Sea region”.


Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles said the Chinese aircraft flew very close to the P-8A, released flares, then cut across its nose and released a “bundle of chaff” that was ingested by the P-8A’s engines. Australia said this was “dangerous” and “threatened the safety of the aircraft and crew”.


China’s Defence Ministry responded that “the Australian military aircraft seriously threatened China’s sovereignty and security and the countermeasures taken by the Chinese military were reasonable and lawful”.


The action of the Chinese jet was indeed dangerous – but why did it take such action? If it was provoked by a violation of Chinese and international law, the simple solution is to cease such provocations – not continue them.

To determine the “right” and “wrong” of this incident, we need to know the flight path of the Australian P-8A, the exact location of the incident, what it was doing, and why. If it occurred in “international air space” as Australia alleges, then it would be in Australia’s interest to specify these details.


Australia’s reluctance to make such details known, and the delay of 10 days in reporting the incident, raises suspicion that Australia may share the blame.


Regardless, the situation is dire. As Australian international law professor Don Rothwell says, “it is clear that there is a pattern associated with Australia’s activities now [that is] very much aligned with the way in which the United States conducts similar activities”. He adds that “the risk of miscalculation is one that is very live”.


This worries defence chief Marles: “This is probably the most-dangerous period that I’ve lived through,” he said. “The idea that, right now, we are witnessing the biggest military build-up [in the region] since the end of the Second World War [ …] What have the conclusion to military build-ups of that kind been in the past? Have they [had] happy endings? That’s what keeps me awake at night.”


No doubt accentuating his fears, on July 13, the US conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the Paracel Islands, challenging China’s prior notification regime for innocent passage of warships through its territorial sea. Whether intended or not, this act appeared to show US support for Australia over the P-8A incident.


Australia has its own well-known disputes with China. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the root of the friction was the former government’s portrayal of China as an “opponent” or “threat”.


He proposed four ways Australia could improve the relationship: treat China as a “partner” rather than a rival”; seek “common ground while shelving differences”; reject manipulation “by a third party”; and build public support “featuring positiveness and pragmatism”.


Serving as a point man for the US with provocative military aerial intelligence probes of China’s defences would seem to violate all of these.


Refraining from these unnecessary unfriendly actions would be a step forward in improving Australia-China relations. Further steps could include a reduction in Australia’s role in the Quad and Aukus, or at least those military aspects clearly designed to contain China.


In response to China’s proposals, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said that Australia “does not respond to demands”. He also said: “I want to build good relations with all countries, but we will stand up for Australia’s interests when we must.”


Of course he should. That is his job. But why is it in Australia’s interest to serve as a pawn in the US confrontation with China in the South China Sea?


Despite the US mantra of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” – often repeated by Australia – China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation there – or anywhere – and is unlikely to do so in peacetime.


However, the US conflates freedom of commercial navigation with the “freedom” of warships and warplanes to spy on and threaten China. When China objects, the US claims China is violating freedom of navigation rules.


Australia has so far not joined or unilaterally undertaken FONOPs that challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea. There are good political and legal reasons for it not to. But it is worrying that, back in 2016, Marles called for Australia to undertake US-style FONOPs. Australia should examine the US argument more closely and decide if it is truly in its national interest to support it.


How far should Australia go on behalf of the US in this game of military chicken in the South China Sea? It is one thing to be a US ally in times of war but quite another to be the one provoking it.


Australia may be sleepwalking into kinetic conflict with China in the South China Sea. Is this what the Albanese government wants? If so, it should be clear and honest with the Australian people and its Southeast Asian partners as to the risks they face, and why it is taking them in a sea far from its shores.


Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.