THE PAPER | Australia’s Interests in the South China Sea
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THE PAPER | Australia’s Interests in the South China Sea

By Lidya C. Sinaga
Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), Indonesia

THE PAPER | Australia’s Interests in the South China Sea

Image Attribute: HMAS Darwin (FFG 04) at Syndey Harbor, Australia
Source: Wikipedia /  CC BY-SA 3.0

"It shows the United States can say a lot about regional prosperity but doesn’t do much. China only says some things, but does a lot." [1]

It has been argued that Australia has no direct interests in the South China Sea (SCS). But, since Australia has a security alliance with the United States, has close economic relations with China, and is a member of both the ARF and EAS, the South China Sea dispute does have an impact on Australia’s strategic considerations and interests regarding regional stability. Furthermore, Australia’s 2013 Defense White Paper clearly stated that: ‚Australia has interests in the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes including in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, the prevention of aggression within Southeast Asia, and freedom of navigation and maritime security in the region’s sea lanes‛.[2] Therefore, a peaceful SCS is in Australia’s interests, particularly as Australia’s extensive shipping trade with East Asia passes through this region. [3]

Australia and the United States have a security treaty entitled the Australia New Zealand United States (ANZUS) Treaty, signed on 1 September 1951. The focus of this treaty is the security guarantee provided to Australia by the US, although this guarantee does not seem to be as explicit as the one relating to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).[4] The ANZUS treaty involves not only security guarantees for Australia, but also provides Australia access to US intelligence and military technologies that it could not produce itself.[5] In addition, as Kelton argues, the ANZUS alliance enhances the prospects of Australian influence in the region which benefits Australia’s long-term interests.[6] However, as a consequence, the US almost certainly expects diplomatic and military support from Australia in any major US maritime military measures in East or South East Asia.[7] Australia has previously proved its commitment to the alliance by joining major US military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US has clearly committed itself to a re-balance of power in the South East Asian region, making commitments regarding the security of South East Asian allies involved in the South China Sea dispute. There are questions, however, about the extent to which Australia would support the US in an East Asian conflict.

As mentioned, in the 2013 Defense White Paper, Australia strongly supports the continued engagement and enhanced presence of the United States in South East Asia. However, that does not necessarily mean that Australia would militarily support the US in any South China Sea dispute. Australia may be confronted with a situation similar to when President Bush declared China as a strategic competitor, but Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer did not follow US’s China Policies.[8] Australia chose to play its own strategy, choosing to actively support the US in.

Afghanistan and Iraq, while at the same time refraining from opposing China on issues related to China’s core strategic interests. Further, in 2003, Australia surprisingly rejected an invitation from the US to join in secret meetings on how to deal with the rise of China. UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan, which are called as the Halibut Group, attended the meeting. Concerned about offending China, Australia preferred to talk bilaterally with the US. Australia considered that it would gain more through individual talks with the US, and at the same time avoids offending China.[9]

Australia’s pragmatic foreign policies have helped Australia build a strategic economic partnership with China. China is now Australia’s largest trading partner and second-biggest export market.[10] According to Griffiths and Wesley, pragmatism in Australia’s foreign policy is reinforced by several factors. First, as a status quo power with a strategic alliance with the US, Australia tends to avoid risks that could reduce its privilege. Second, Australia culturally has national characters such as ‚suspicious of big‛, abstract thought and keen for immediate and visible results. Third, bureaucratic problem in Australian foreign policy-making is also evident since only a few executives with excessive load involves. Finally, Griffiths and Wesley called this last factor as a ‚culture of serendipity‛ that Australia

‚seems to be always saved‛ by the international occurrence. Therefore, as they quoted from Horne (1965), ‚a country that has never had to weather the full impact of an international challenge is not disposed to think hard about the future‛.[11]

Nonetheless, relations between Australia and China have fluctuated since 1972 when Australia built diplomatic relations with China. Significant progress in the relationship was made during Kevin Rudd’s prime leadership in 2008. China was his first overseas trip. However, in 2009 the partnership reached a low point [12] when the 2009 Defense White Paper considered China to be a threat. The White Paper argued that China's military build-up went beyond what it needed for a conflict with Taiwan.[13] For China, as stated in the Beijing Review, this White Paper was just an excuse for Australia to increase its military budget, and to assure the US that Australia would not further its relations with China.[14]

In the 2013 Defense White Paper, four key Australian strategic goals are identified: a secure Australia, a secure South Pacific and Timor Leste, a stable Indo-Pacific [15], and a stable, rules-based global order. The paper acknowledged that the security of South East Asia is central to a stable Indo-Pacific region. Australia has for some time engaged with South East Asia for such security reasons.

Australia became ASEAN's very first Dialogue Partner in 1974 and was a founding member of the ARF in 1994. Australia’s accession to the TAC in December 2005 was primarily motivated by Canberra’s desire to be a founding member of the EAS.[16] The ASEAN-Australia Dialogue Relations achieved a significant milestone in 2007 with the adoption of the Joint Declaration on ASEAN-Australia Comprehensive Partnership.[17] Clearly, South East Asia is recognized as part of Australia’s strategic interests. The 2009 Defense White Paper did mention that‚ a secure and stable Southeast Asia is in Australia’s strategic interests‛. Therefore, it is not surprising that Australia chooses to support ASEAN’s view regarding the proposal for a multilateral CoC in the SCS.

Cite This Article:

Sinaga, Lidya C.: China's Assertive Foreign Policy in South China Sea Under Xi Jinping: Its Impact on United States and Australian Foreign Policy. In: Journal of ASEAN Studies 3 (2015), 2, pp. 133-149. URN: / Download the Paper - LINK

Publication Details:

Journal of ASEAN Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2015), pp. 133-149 ©2015 by CBDS Bina Nusantara University and Indonesian Association for International Relations ISSN 2338-1361 print / ISSN 2338-1353 electronic

This document is made available under a CC BY-NC Licence (Attribution-NonCommercial). 
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[1] J Perlez, ‘Asia’s ‘Big Guy’ Spreads Cash and Seeks Influence in Pacific Region’, 22 November 2014, retrieved 21 May 2015, .

[2] Department of Defence, Defence White Paper 2013, retrieved 22 May 2015, .

[3] Northeast Asia is the destination of 55 percent of Australia’s merchandise export, based on Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Country and Region Factsheets, in Dupont, A Dupont, ‘Living with the Dragon: Why Australia needs a China Strategy’, Lowy, Sydney 2011, retrieved 25 May 2015, .

[4] P Edwards, ‘Permanent Friends? Historical Reflections on the Australian-American Alliance’, Lowy Institute Paper, No. 8, 2005, pp. 16-17.

[5] Department of Defence, op.cit

[6] M Kelton, ‘More than an Ally? Contemporary Australia-US Relations, Ashgate, USA, 2008, p. 187.

[7] A Behm, in J Lee, op.cit, p. 404.

[8] C Tubilewicz, ‘The 2009 Defence White Paper and the Rudd Governmet’s Response to China’s Rise’, Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 45, No. 1, March 2010, pp. 149-157.

[9] L Sales, ‘Australia declines invitation to US forum on China’, 28 June 2005, retrieved 22 May 2015, .

[10] M Griffiths & M Wesley, ‘Taking Asia Seriously’, Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 45, No. 1, March 2010, p. 20.

[11] Ibid. 63 C Tubilewicz, op.cit.

[12] See point 4.26-27 in Department of Defense, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, Australia, 2009, retrieved 29 May 2015, .

[13] C Tubilewicz, op.cit.

[14] The 2013 Defence White Paper defined the IndoPacific region as a wider concept of the Asia-Pacific region, extending from India though Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia, including the sea lanes of communication on which the region depends. Department of Defence, Defence White Paper 2013 op.cit, p.7.

[15] Manyin, ME, Garcia, MJ, Morrison WM, op.cit.

[16] ASEAN Secretariat, ‘Overview of Australia-ASEAN Relations’, retrieved 22 May 2015, .

[17] Department of Defense, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, op.cit.