We must do more than wave the flag in the South China Sea

| July 2, 2019

There’s a credibility problem in the South China Sea. When ASEAN states consider China’s commitment to dominating maritime Southeast Asia, its capability and the risks it’s willing to take, they undoubtedly come up with a pretty clear-eyed assessment. It’s knowledge won through painful experience.

ASEAN states also know that opposing Beijing too strongly will bring punishment, while conformity can bring rewards. And they have a good deal of certainty that China’s strategic intent won’t be changing anytime soon.

They don’t, however, share similar confidence in America’s commitment to upholding a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. The failure of the pivot to Asia, the derailment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Donald Trump’s transactional approach to international relationships, resource challenges in Asia and growing strategic distractions all help to reduce America’s credibility in the eyes of ASEAN states. And from their position on the frontline of China’s rise, they know that American talk is cheap.

ASEAN states may not like a lot of what China is doing, but it’s easy to see why acknowledging the realities imposed by a rising power next door might seem more attractive than betting on the vague promises of a superpower thousands of kilometres away.

It’s not surprising, then, that at least some ASEAN countries have shifted more support to China, and that China is becoming even more emboldened. And as time goes by without any real, practical checks on Beijing’s behaviour, its momentum continues to build. The growing credibility gap has real consequences.

America’s most visible military responses to China’s maritime aggression and territorial expansion have been in the form of freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) around some of China’s claims, as well as some high-profile port visits and exercises with regional partners. But these initiatives don’t provide the level of reassurance needed to encourage ASEAN states to really help balance China’s power.

Although US FONOPs attract a huge volume of media coverage and elicit creative diplomatic responses from Beijing, as James Goldrick has pointed out, these operations aren’t specifically about China. Rather, they’re part of a 40-year-old US program designed to challenge all states’ excessive maritime claims.

The US carries out FONOPs against its own partners, including against ASEAN states’ own South China Sea claims, and a program partly aimed at those states is unlikely to help build much confidence with them.

Similarly, port visits and military exercises don’t really do much to bolster ASEAN states in the face of growing Chinese power, and this goes for visits and exercises by Australian units too.

Traditionally, these types of activities carry significant diplomatic value, because the highly visible presence of sovereign power can reassure or deter as the case requires. But what exactly are we reassuring Southeast Asian nations of? And how much power is necessary to do it effectively?

According to Australia’s chief of navy, Michael Noonan, the recent Indo-Pacific Endeavour deployment demonstrates to our regional partners the fleet’s ‘growing capability’.

That may be true, but in maritime Southeast Asia, capability needs to be seen in relative terms, and I’m not sure that the arrival of a couple of Australian ships provides much confidence to countries staring down the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which in raw numbers is now the largest navy on earth.

Moreover, when Noonan speaks of the deployment sending a ‘strong message’ that Australia is a ‘committed partner’, the obvious question arises: committed to what? Commitment to exercises and partnerships is terrific, but we hold exercises and have a partnership with China too, so what reassurance are we actually giving? ‘Committed to the region’ is a common cliche, but it’s so vague as to be meaningless.

If the US and Australia want to build real credibility with Southeast Asian nations in an effort to collectively balance China’s power in the South China Sea—and it can’t be done without collective commitment—then we need to demonstrate more than just capability while repeating vague platitudes. We need to clearly demonstrate intent and a willingness to take risks to counter China’s aggression. The environment has changed and we can’t just do what we’ve done before.

Joint South China Sea maritime patrols with ASEAN partners would be one way of signalling this commitment. While ASEAN states have previously regarded joint patrols with the US as overly inflammatory, the same isn’t necessarily true for Australia. Our involvement would be less outwardly provocative than that of the US and more likely to gain support from ASEAN countries.

Indonesia, for one, has repeatedly raised the possibility with Australia, and been given a quiet ‘no thanks’. But joint patrols of the southern reaches of the South China Sea with Indonesia would be a good starting point in clearly signalling our rejection of China’s aggressive actions, while also expanding military-to-military links in an operational environment.

Admittedly, such patrols would have to confront an extremely complex and sensitive geopolitical and operational environment and would require some carefully crafted and workable rules of engagement. These difficulties aren’t to be understated, but they’re also not impossible to resolve.

Such a move would risk worsening the ‘deep freeze’ in Australia–China relations. But focusing only on the short-term consequences ignores the bigger problem: with all hopes of China becoming a ‘responsible stakeholder’ now dead, the capacity for China to constrain our maritime freedom of movement will only grow as its power grows. Without action, at some point we’re likely to find ourselves strategically reliant on the benevolence of an expansionist dictatorship.

To change the dynamics, we need to help foster a meaningful, US-led collective balance to China’s maritime power within Southeast Asia. And the same old flag-waving won’t cut it.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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