In recent months, China has been challenging the Unites States’ security agenda with its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
And now that Australia has basically teamed up with the US and its allies against China, it becomes more interesting.
Speaking at a meeting in Sydney, Australian Department of Defense secretary Dennis Richardson repeated the words of the US administration, saying that Australia had a “national interest” in “freedom of navigation” through the territory China had made claims on.
“The use by China of land reclamation for military purposes would be of particular concern,” Dennis Richardson said, adding that the Australian government was also “concerned about the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land-reclamation in the South China Sea.”
It has been long known that China is building its infrastructure on some of the islets and reefs.
The Defense secretary’s speech about “potential miscalculations” in the current situation brought to public’s attention the beginning of colder – if not cold – relations between Canberra and Beijing.
However, it is unlikely the Chinese government is going to turn a blind eye to such Abbott government’s stance, which means the latter must have been prepared for a possible diplomatic conflict as well as some economic restrictions.
China wouldn’t mind escalation to a war
Australia’s community is noticeably divided on that matter. Some think Australia is pushing too hard and thus faces certain geopolitical risks; others think Australia is too soft.
There is an opinion that China will win any contest of wills because Xi Jinping, the President of China, would not mind the conflict escalating to being at the brink of war.
Commenting on the issue, Andrew Davies, a former defense intelligence analyst, now at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that the US administration cannot apply the required quantum of power “without taking risks that outweigh the potential gains.”
After the speech made by Richardson, the Australian Financial Review supported Australia’s efforts to join the US in order to establish “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, arguing that would demonstrate that “China’s claims on sea and sky across this vital trade route are recognized by no-one else.”
It was then leaked to Fairfax Media by unnamed sources within the Defense Department that there have been discussions on that matter within the Australian government, including discussions within “senior military circles” regarding Australian air force and naval personnel taking part in “freedom of navigation missions.”
China has moved its weaponry to contested areas of the South China Sea
The online Sydney Morning Herald issued a report on Thursday, claiming that some “Australian officials” had alleged that China “has moved weaponry onto artificial islands that it is building in contested areas of the South China Sea.”
The accusations have been widely broadcasted by other Australian media outlets even though no evidence or sources could back the story.
Tony Abbott is set to be briefed within two weeks regarding “options, including fly-throughs, sail-throughs and exercises involving various regional partners.” These options would allegedly be in line with the Pentagon strategy.
Therefore, Australian surveillance planes and warships could be ordered to begin irregular patrolling of South China Sea in order to deter China from making territorial claims over the South and East China Seas.
“You could just conduct a sail through onto an existing exercise or a port visit to make the point you are not happy with Beijing’s behavior,” one Defense source told the Financial Review.
The source added that “a number of countries could get involved, not just the US and Australia.”
According to the article, “senior officers and officials” stated that “Australia could join a humanitarian or military exercise with the United States or one of several regional partners including Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.”
Additionally, such a move “has been discussed in Washington and key capitals in the region, but no proposal has yet been put to Canberra, it is understood.”
Furthermore, the report said that Australian military officers had a discussion on the “need to demonstrate that they do not recognize any 12-mile territorial zone or a more expansive economic zone that China may unilaterally declare around its freshly-minted islands.”
Australia’s interests are not served by following the US into conflict
In a conversation between The Australian Financial Review and Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University and one of Beijing’s most influential foreign policy experts, there were a few statements regarding the current situation with China.
“Australia has no choice but to accept the reality of China’s rising military power,” Xuetong said.
However, he pointed out that Australia is an “American island” that is going to eventually distance itself from the US, just like New Zealand has done.
“Australia should have learned from its involvement in the Iraq war that its interests are not served by following the United States into conflict: Australia should bear this in mind in its responses to tensions in the South China Sea.”
In Yan Xuetong’s opinion, the best solution to the conflict would be Australia’s move to “replicate the South Korean model” and strengthen its military cooperation with Beijing while balancing its relations between both China and the US.
Australia could be dragged into a war
Analyzing the recent developments in the relations between the US and Australia, it must be pointed out that the North West Cape base in Western Australia is a key US “anti-satellite” facility, tracking Chinese as well as Russian satellites for destruction by unspecified weapons.
Therefore, deals signed between the US and Australia have paved the way to station US Marines in the northern Australian city of Darwin and thus provide broader access for US aircraft and warships to Australian military bases and ports.
That kind of ‘cooperation’ allows the US to take Australia to the war against China even without having a vote in the Australian parliament. Australia would immediately become a participating side of the conflict, with or without the wish to become one.