Asia

The South China Sea: Complicating Sino-Australian relations

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (L) talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after their joint news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (L) talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after their joint news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Recently, some of the gloss has come off the charmed relationship between the countries of Australia and China, which have enjoyed the have a long history of mutually beneficial economic cooperation. The spanner in the works has become the increasing confrontation between China and other Asia-Pacific alliances for control over the South China Sea.

International media coverage of the construction of Chinese military bases and the stationing of ground-to-air missiles systems on the Paracel and Spratly Islands was particularly disturbing to Australian authorities. Addressing all countries involved in the conflict, Australia called for the termination of the militarization of the South China Sea, in which it sees a threat to the security of the region, as well as the cessation of economic development due to the possible restrictions for sea and air traffic. Australia has also demanded that China cease the construction of artificial islands, and has also formally expressed its support to the Philippines, which appealed to the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague over the legality of China’s maritime claims.

Over the past five years, bilateral trade volume has grown by about fifty percent, prior to the commencement of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement which took place in June 2015. As both nations continue to make their respective mutual investments, we see that Australian companies are now widely represented on the Chinese market, and in addition student exchange and tourism programs are developing and gaining market traction. In a speech in October 2015, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull looked forward to a “golden age” of Australian-Chinese relations.

However, in a February 2016 official visit to China by Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, discussions with Chinese authorities focused on the developing situation in the South China Sea. Foreign Minister Bishop brought up Xi Jinping’s statement from the previous year, recalling that China did not want to militarize the area of the challenged islands. Australian media reports also detailed Chinese denials by Ministry of Defense in Taiwan that a missile defense system was stationed on one of the Spratly Islands. However, on February 17 2016, at the joint press conference with his Australian counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi re-stated the state’s right to self-defense and that the construction of the military infrastructure on the islands was entirely legal.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei also made a number of statements in which he urged Australian leadership to make an objective and unbiased assessment of the events in the region to fully understand the situation and avoid making rash statements. He also said that the islands in the South China Sea are primordial Chinese territory in which China has a right to station defensive targets, that it has been doing so for the last decade and that it does not constitute a ‘militarization’ of the region, nor does it harm the free sea and air transportation in the region.

Despite these differences, the development of bilateral economic relations continues. During Foreign Minister Bishop’s visit to China, an agreement was reached on expanding military cooperation between Australia and China. Commenting during the visit of his Australian colleague, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said that the two countries had reached agreement on a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. Yi also mentioned agriculture, education, tourism, energy, and the strengthening of maritime traffic between the countries among the most promising areas of the Australian-Chinese cooperation. The latter was to be given special attention as it implies Australia’s involvement in the ‘New Silk Road’, the most important international trade project for Chinese authorities currently.

One of Foreign Minister Bishop’s claims in mid-February was that China and Australia had long been successfully cooperating in the spheres of trade and security, and that the two countries indeed plan to run joint military exercises in the near future. However, just a week later the Australian Government leadership made statements to which China reacted negatively. On February 25 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated that Australia was planning to significantly increase its military budget and to strengthen the combat capabilities of the Navy to protect its interests in the Asia-Pacific region. This was seen by many as due to the increase in military power of China and its expansion in the South China Sea. In addition, Turnbull expressed support from the part of Australia to the military presence of US in the Asia-Pacific that Australian Prime Minister called “the most important strategic partner of Australia.” According to him, the US military maintains stability in the region. It is difficult to say how much current stability in the region depends on the United States, whose influence there is weakening with each year. However, the Australian leadership clearly designated its position. Perhaps, Australia wants to reinforce its own armed forces because of this weakening of the US presence. Also, Canberra has again negatively reacted to the Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

At the same time, Marise Payne, Australian Minister for Defense, said that Australia plans on military cooperation with China, which Julie Bishop talked about; however, on some issues related to security in the Asia-Pacific region, the views of countries may not coincide, and Australia will increase its presence in the region. Beijing criticized Canberra’s plans to reinforce its military capabilities. Besides, Australia has recently expressed a desire to participate in future naval exercise ‘Malabar’, which has been carried out by the United States and India since Year 1992, and in which Japan took part in Year 2015. These exercises have caused repeated protests from the part of the Chinese government.

In response, a statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed the hope that Canberra would change its position and reconsider its views on the Chinese policy.

It could be said that the Australian-Chinese strategic relations are indeed headed for rough waters. Both countries are strong players in the Asia-Pacific region and have their own interests. However, in order to maximize the furtherance of its own interests, Australia continues to try and maintain constructive relations both with the United States and with China, despite their competition for influence in the region. Australia is also one of the founders of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank launched by the Chinese initiative to finance the ‘New Silk Road’ project, so we may assume that, in spite of the current differences, both Australia and China are unlikely to seek any form of diplomatic complication in the South China Seas.

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