During his recent state visit to Australia, China’s Premier, Li Keqiang kept up the gentle pressure on Canberra to draw closer to Beijing. Australia is a US ally in the region as a part of the ANZUS alliance. And with China dredging new islands in the South ChinaSea and building military facilities to claim almost all the disputed waters, it is clearly upsetting, if not threatening, regional stability and security. And Australia, like most regional countries, has an important stake in regional peace and stability.
China is pushing ahead with its agenda to establish regional dominance by ignoring the rival territorial claims of some of its regional neighbours. Although Australia has tried to be neutral on the issue of contested sovereignty in the region as it is not a claimant, it nevertheless wants the issue resolved peacefully through negotiations under law. To put it simply, it is against theChinese adventures to change the realities in the South China Sea. Of late, though, even while maintaining aprincipled position of respect for international law and institutions, Canberra appears to be softening its tone.
The reasons for this are not far to seek. An important one is the reality of China’s power. Secondly, even though the US is talking the talk against China’s projection of power into the region and the South China Sea, it has not been able to match the rhetoric with concrete action. True, it has sent a naval ship, or two through the Chinese-claimed waters, but it has lacked in any clear resolve to back up Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia doctrine, declared in a 2011 visit to Canberra. This gap in rhetoric and practice has only encouraged China to declare a Chinese version of the Monroe doctrine in the region.
With Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, and despite the initial strident anti-China rhetoric over trade, currency manipulation and the South China Sea, Beijing now appears more confident about its narrative that the South China Sea and its islands have been historically part of China. It is so confident, on thesurface at least, that what it is propounding is not just China’s narrative but to promote regional stability. For instance, during his visit here, Premier Li sought to neatly mix Chinese and regional interests to support China’s activities in the South China Sea.
He said at a press conference that “Chinadoesn’t have any intention to engage in militarization in the South China Sea.” As for, “China’s facilities on Chinese islands and reefs [a blanket claim of ownership][these] are primarily for civilian purposes, and even if there is a certain amount of defence equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea because without such freedom, or without stability in the South China Sea, the Chinese side would be among the first to bear the brunt of it.”
But the question is: who is posing a threat to maritime traffic through the South China Sea? Before China started to build military facilitiesand claimed much of South China Sea, international trade was largely flowing smoothly through these waters. It is only after China has started to militarise the islands and reefs that the region is experiencing tensions and instability.
With the US seemingly unsure of how to respond to China’s projection of power, some regional countries are seeking their own accommodation with China’s rising power. The Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, is most notable. Malaysia is another case. Indeed, the South-East-Asian countries are now, in varying degrees, susceptible to China’s economic pressure with their increasing dependence on trade and investment from China. South Korea is increasingly feeling the pressure of undeclared Chinese blockade of its trade and services exports.
Australia is coming under continuous, though seemingly gentle pressure, to become a part of what one might call, China’s greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere. During Premier Li’s visit here, He was keen to emphasise the positive in their relationship like their growing trade valued in 2015/16 at A$150 billion, with a very healthy surplus in Australia’ favour. Talking of the deal to expand China’s beef market for Australian exports, Prime Minister Turnbull said that “Australia is the only country in the world with this market access.” Highlighting the growth of investment, Turnbull added that “we continue to welcome investment from China with the stock of direct investment growing to A$35 billion by the end of 2015.”
Australia, of course, is a part of the ANZUS alliance and hence a US ally, but there are increasingly powerful voices within Australia favouring a closer relationship with China. Paul Keating, a former Australian prime minister, made a strong pitch in a national daily for creating stronger bonds with China.
According to Keating, “The ‘pivot’ or ‘stay-as-we-are’ [policy] has meant that the US is seeking to maintain strategichegemony in the western Pacific rather than recognising the rise of China as a legitimate event, and a state now as large as the US itself.” He argued that as the world has moved to a position of bipolarity with the US and China, and Australia should similarly be developing a policy of cooperation with China, and not of “resigned reluctance.”
On the South China Sea,Keating felt that the anxiety over artificial islands was being exaggerated and they were no challenge to Australia. On the other hand, “If Australia were to have a positive strategic policy of engagement with China rather than a negative one, our influence on China’s behaviour would be much greater than it is today.”
As for containing China, he attacked advocacy of enhanced strategic ties between the US, Australia, Japan and India, describing this doctrine of “quadrilateralism” as “reckless on an international scale.”
Of course, Keating doesn’t represent the official policy, which still favours US alliance. But he is not alone in advocating a radical re-evaluation of relations with China to suit Australia’s interests in view of China’s rise. And this re-evaluation process is gaining ground in the region, even more so after Donald Trump becoming the US President. As Christopher Pyne, Australia’ defence industry minister, has said, while reiterating that Australia remained one of US’ closest allies, “every US ally…is considering how that will operate in the next four years.”
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney. He can be reached at email@example.com