Australia’s decision to invite a Chinese warship to participate in upcoming naval exercises off its northern coast at Darwin signals a widening divergence with the United States on how to respond to Beijing’s expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea.
The US Navy, also involved in Exercise Kakadu later this month, recently canceled a similar arrangement for the People’s Liberation Army Navy to send warships to participate in the RIMPAC war games off Hawaii, which have just ended.
This was probably no surprise, as RIMPAC, reputedly the world’s biggest naval exercise, is a key cog in US efforts to form a security alliance against China. It involved personnel from 25 nations, including Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Australia.
“China’s behavior is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise,” the Department of Defense said with considerable understatement when it “disinvited” Chinese forces in late May.
In contrast, Canberra is promoting Kakadu as an opportunity to “generate active and effective security partnerships between Australia and our region.”
China will send “a major fleet unit”, thought to be a frigate, but will be excluded from live firing and other activities for “security reasons”, which may ease some of America’s misgivings about the PLA’s presence in Darwin.
The exercise will be staged amid intense lobbying by the Pentagon for the Australian navy to support US freedom of navigation patrols close to atolls China has established to assert its claim to most of the South China Sea.
US President Donald Trump declared in February he would “love” for Australia to participate in joint exercises in the area to contest these claims, outlined in Beijing’s so-called “nine-dash” line map.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defense Minister Marise Payne informed their US counterparts Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis at talks in the US late last month that they would not support any “unilateral” action against China.
Bishop said in an interview with News Corp that Australia had never conducted freedom of navigation patrols against any country and that it would be an “extraordinary step” to do so. This is the first time the Australian government has categorically ruled out entering the 12-mile territorial zone Beijing has declared around islands in the volatile maritime region.
Australian warships and surveillance aircraft regularly sail through the sea to assert right of passage, and are routinely challenged by the PLA. In April, Chinese ships confronted three Australian ships sailing to Ho Chi Minh City, in what was described as a “robust” stand-off close to southern Vietnam.
“We maintain and practice the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world … including the South China Sea, as is our perfect right in accordance with international law,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, while refusing to comment on the actual incident.
The Royal Navy is also pressing for Australian ships to escort a Pacific fleet being formed around the newest British aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth.
Its deployment is expected to include freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea — a vital trade route for Western Europe, as well as Asia, through which an estimated US$5.3 trillion of trade travels annually.
“We are very much hoping and going to work together on deploying HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific and hopefully sailing side by side with Australian vessels,” British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said after a meeting of the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers in July.
Canberra has not commented, but has about two years to think about it.
So far Australia’s biggest commitment has been to step up surveillance, which helps keep Chinese ambitions in check without risking important economic relationships.
Turnbull announced in June that Australia will spend US$5.2 billion on six unmanned spy planes that will monitor the South China Sea and wider Pacific, feeding information to defense and intelligence allies including the US.
Whether this will be seen by Trump as enough of a contribution is debatable, as US security agencies are convinced China will raise the threshold by declaring an exclusion zone in the sea as soon as it feels capable of defending such a claim.
There is speculation that this could occur within the next year or so. The US has said it will not recognize a Chinese exclusion zone if it is established.
“Australia needs to work through its comfort level,” said US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randy Schriver, adding that “we want to see countries demonstrating” that they will resist China’s “assertiveness” in establishing territorial claims in the passageway.
At this point, however, Canberra is happy to remain within its own exclusion zone.