Will Australia Be the ‘Whipping Boy’ for the US in the South China Sea?

Australia, which has long professed its neutrality on affairs within the South China Sea, has more recently begun to stray from the middle ground. With the 2016 Balikatan joint military exercises between the United States and the Philippines having officially commenced on April 4, many have taken special note that, apart from American and Filipino troops, over 80 Australian soldiers are participating in the combat drills for the first time. Previously, when the commander of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet proposed “joint patrols” in the South China Sea, Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne also broke from the norm by indicating that Australia would likely dispatch ships and military aircraft to disputed areas of the South China Sea to demonstrate its resolve in maintaining “freedom of navigation” in those waters.

Why has Australia now come off the fence to seemingly choose a side? Although the reasons are many, three chief factors stand in the forefront.

First is the unrelenting pressure and the repeated exhortations from the United States. Australia has long maintained an “unshakable” alliance with the world’s last remaining superpower, and Aussies march to the beat of an American drum on a host of major international policies, as well as within their regional affairs. Particularly in light of Washington doubling down on its “Asian rebalance” strategy and Australia’s strategically valuable geographic location, Canberra has come to play an extremely important role in the Asia-Pacific region. Accordingly, the United States is eager to see Australia pin on a deputy’s badge in the South China Sea, or perhaps take on an even greater role, and thus share the burden of responsibility. The U.S. administration and military have in the past intimated their dissatisfaction with the nebulous position and posture of Australia on the South China Sea issue. They have ratcheted up the pressure on that point by several degrees, and in recent years the U.S. has increased the numbers of marines, bombers and warships deployed to Australia to “oversee operations.”

Second, Australia pursues a two-track policy of foreign relations, hinged upon security and the economy. For many years, China-Australia relations have been amicable, with close trade ties. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and Australian economic growth has traditionally been heavily reliant upon China. Furthermore, the two states have already established twin mechanisms of diplomatic and strategic dialogue, as well as a strategic economic dialogue, and have opened direct trading between the renminbi and the Australian dollar. However, it is clear that when security and economic interests clash, the priority is placed upon security matters. Slowed economic growth in China and the falling price of mined resources on global markets in recent years has prompted a precipitous drop in Australian exports to China. The reliance of the Australian economy upon China has correspondingly fallen, and the weight of economic issues within the balance of Australian national strategy appears to have decreased in due proportion.

Finally, Australia is a global power with 7.68 million square kilometers of dry land, but at the same time has also been a “Western nation” of limited strength. Over the past few years, its sustained economic growth and the modernization of its weapon systems now have Australia brimming with confidence, heightening its great power complex. Now, the waters of the South China Sea, over 2,000 kilometers away, have become the designated location for Australia to realize its lofty ambitions for regional dominance. With the backing of the United States and supportive encouragements from the Japanese, Australia will likely persist in pursuing these grand designs in the South China Sea, despite China’s admonishments and warnings.

As to Australia’s “drinking the Kool-Aid” and preparations to take part in U.S.-led inflammatory operations within the South China Sea, China must use diplomatic channels to caution Australia and help concoct an antidote. First, China should proceed by utilizing politics, diplomacy, publications, interpersonal exchange and other means to advise Australia via clear and rational terms. Second, China must point out the United States’ self-interested nature in South China Sea affairs, emphasizing that if Australia allows itself to be fooled into supporting U.S. actions, it may very well become the United States’ “whipping boy” in the end. Third, China should remind Australia that in the event of a crisis the United States can simply vanish into the night, while Australia, being itself situated within the Asia-Pacific region, will be left wallowing in the mud.

There still is downward pressure on the Chinese economy, but Asia remains the world’s most dynamic region, with arguably the brightest prospects – it will provide nearly two-thirds of global economic growth over the next four years. As a regional power in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia must have a clear understanding that new energy can only be generated by augmenting regional cooperation, such as that with China, while friction and disputes will be detrimental to all concerned.

The author is an expert on naval affairs.

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