Coalition luminaries have taken a much less hawkish line than Labor frontbenchers on a key issue in an otherwise tepid foreign policy content. Malcolm Turnbull and John Howard are more dovish on Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea than Labor’s shadow defence minister Stephen Conroy. More remarkably, Bill Shorten backs Conroy, even if somewhat equivocally.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Asia on May 5, Howard said Australia should be “pragmatic” about China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. He urged patience and rejected calls to bring the issue to a head as not “very smart”. Asked if Australia’s Navy should conduct “freedom of navigation” patrols through waters claimed by China, Howard was noncommittal. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of Conroy’s call in January for the Turnbull government to conduct such patrols. Turnbull refused. Shorten said negotiation was best, but insisted Conroy was stating bipartisan support for freedom of navigation. Clearly, there is no bipartisan support for what Conroy wants.
The US is the only country that has conducted “freedom of navigation” patrols within the 12-mile limit that China claims in waters others also claim in the South China Sea. Conroy urged Australia to follow the US lead to “support the international system” in the South China Sea. China’s assertiveness is troubling, but does not obviously violate the international legal system. China has not invaded any country over the disputed territorial claims it inherited from Chiang Kai-shek’s government in 1949. In contrast, Australia broke international law by participating in the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Nor, as a big trading nation, does China have a strong motive to interfere with the freedom of commercial navigation. However, it would be better if it removed its troops from disputed islands, although other claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam have put also troops on previously unoccupied islands.
The biggest mistake China could make would be to believe Western analysts who argue it’s almost as militarily powerful as the US. True, the US couldn’t defeat ragged bands of Afghan tribal fighters armed with clapped-out rifles and home-made bombs. But it would be a terrible mistake for China to assume it could win very different battles at sea against advanced, highly experienced US forces backed by vastly superior technologies. The US would make an even worse mistake if it thought it could achieve an enduring victory in a protracted land war with China.
Excluding this blunder, two American specialists Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth make a compelling case in the latest issue of the US journal Foreign Affairs that China will not match the US militarily for many decades, if ever. The authors accept that China has improved its defences in its immediate coastal waters, but say it is only natural for it to reverse “this unusual vulnerability, which the US would never accept for itself”. Beyond that limited zone, they say China will remain much weaker than the US, particularly in underwater warfare where US submarines and sensors are far superior. Although not stated, there is no US need for Australian submarines to bolster those also operated near China by Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore.
The authors say the US’ dominant position means it “should avoid too aggressive a reaction” in the South China Sea that could spark a conflict. They say: “These small, exposed islands arguably leave the overall military balance unchanged, since they would be all but impossible [for China] to defend in a conflict.”
While not preferred, a lasting change in ownership of an uninhabited rock in waters between China and Japan or in the South China Sea would not pose a threat to Australia. China has neither motive nor capacity to project enough power to threaten Australia. It is surrounded by potential adversaries and its fuel imports can be blocked at choke points like the Malacca Straits. Although China could even not defend an island in the outer edges of the South China Sea, it could sink a ship or buy less from Australia.
The prudent Australian response would be keep urging its biggest trading partner to exercise restraint, but not add to tensions by adopting Conroy’s proposal to put the Australian Navy in the firing line.