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Senior defence strategists have urged Scott Morrison to greenlight freedom of navigation operations by Australian warships in the South China Sea after Australia declared Chinese maritime claims in the waters to be illegal.
US ambassador to Australia AB Culvahouse applauded Australia’s “robust and ongoing leadership” in rejecting Beijing’s disputed claims, amid threats of retribution from Chinese state media.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds departed on Sunday for high-level talks in Washington after Australia declared claims to waters around the contested islands and features had “no legal basis”.
- COMMENTARYRobert Gottliebsen
In a statement to the UN, Australia specifically rejected Chinese territorial claims to artificial islands and waters between disputed maritime features, and said it did not accept Chinese assertions that sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands were “widely recognised by the international community.”
Former Defence Department secretary Dennis Richardson said the statement was “overdue” and should be backed up with practical demonstrations of Australia’s position. “It certainly reinforces the merits of Australian naval vessels sailing as close as they wish to those artificial features which the Chinese government have militarised and wrongly claim to generate territorial waters,” he said.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings also urged Australian freedom of navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of disputed features in the South China Sea. “The problem is, if you don’t do anything other than just occasionally sail through the area, you are really giving de facto acknowledgment of the reality of Chinese control,” he said.
“If we are at all serious about saying that is not acceptable, this is the moment to push back a bit harder.”
Australia has resisted joining the US in sailing within 12 nautical miles of disputed Chinese-claimed features, amid concerns it would further degrade the nation’s relationship with Beijing.
Malcolm Turnbull wrote in his memoir that he was also concerned about US support, saying “if Washington hesitated … or was unable immediately to intervene”, the US would be exposed as an unreliable “paper tiger”.
Mr Jennings said that concern was no longer valid, given US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement this month condemning “unlawful” Chinese claims, and American moves to put two aircraft carriers in the region.
“That should give us the confidence to imagine that the US will be there and China is not going to push too hard to create an incident,” he said.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the US could apply fresh pressure on Australia at AUSMIN to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea “because you have to ultimately demonstrate you don’t accept the excessive claims”.
“If they propose doing something, I don’t think it can be a solo Australian operation,” Dr Graham said. “It would have to be some sort of rainbow sail-through with the Americans and hopefully some Asian countries to demonstrate this is not just the usual like-minded suspects.”
Mr Culvahouse said Australia’s move to challenge China’s unlawful behaviour was an important step towards strengthening regional security.
“We commend Australia for its leadership in rejecting the PRC’s illegal claims in the South China Sea at the UN and in strongly calling out malign PRC behaviour when and where it occurs,” he said. “Australia’s robust and ongoing leadership in the region helps secure our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Chinese government mouthpiece The Global Times said Australia’s declaration was a reckless “provocation” that could be punished with trade sanctions.
It said the move was aimed at winning US support, but “Australia hasn’t clearly thought about the consequences. The relationship between China and Australia has deteriorated to a very bad point, and the chance for a turnaround is slim in the near future.”
Titled “Australia unwisely boards US leaky boat”, the article says the Morrison government’s decision is “not surprising”.
“One of the main reasons is that Australia’s policy lacks independence, and its current choice is to closely follow the US lead,” it says. “If Australia further provokes China, not only on political relations but also economic relations, the damage to Australia should be expected.
“It should be said that so far, Australia has not learned a great lesson. If it still insists on going on the current path, the possibility that China will take strong countermeasures cannot be ruled out. For example, China could target substitutable agricultural products such as beef and wine.”
The threat follows Beijing‘s move to slap an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley and suspend beef imports from four eastern states abattoirs after Australia led global calls for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus.
Senators Payne and Reynolds will meet US counterparts Mr Pompeo and Mark Esper for the annual AUSMIN talks from Tuesday night (AEST). Before departing for Washington, they blasted Beijing’s “coercive conduct” in the South China Sea and its human rights record in Hong Kong.