Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has inherited his predecessor's tough stance on China. Photo: Screengrab / BBC / Getty

Like all nations, Australia has a right to a military presence in the South China Sea. But how and why it exercises that right have become key policy questions.

Should Australia risk kinetic conflict with China with aerial intelligence probes along its coast and possible freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) challenging its maritime claims, all in support of the US strategy to contain China? If so, why? 

Prominent Australian analyst Rory Medcalf has summarized Australia’s interests in the South China Sea as “rules, balance and lifelines.” He says Australia’s military is there because Australia is a major trading nation, a regional maritime player in international law, a middle power that benefits from the protection of norms and international law, a partner to its Asian neighbors, and an ally of the US.

Let’s examine these reasons and assess whether any of them alone or or even together are sufficient to justify the risk of political, economic and military conflict with China.

Freedom of navigation

First of all, only about 20% of Australia’s exports pass through the South China Sea, not two-thirds, as its Defense Department White Paper has it. While still a large chunk, most of this is destined for China and is unlikely to be interrupted by Beijing in peacetime. Further, there is an alternative route available between eastern Australia and Japan and South Korea that passes to the east of the Philippines.

More important, China has not threatened freedom of commercial navigation. The idea that it does or might is the result of clever US conflation of the freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom for its military assets to threaten and spy.

China does consider some of these latter activities to be violations of the duty proscribed in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to pay due regard to its rights and interests in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The US has not ratified UNCLOS yet enforces its own interpretations thereof. Does Australia really want to risk military conflict with China over this US-conflated and politicized principle?

Medcalf says Australia is a middle power and an ally of the US. But that is the problem.  Australia is a middle power only and is risking the ire of a great power – China – on behalf of its ally the US. 

Would Australia be doing this on its own if it weren’t an ally of the US? If not, why is it sticking its neck out? Shouldn’t Australia’s focus be on monitoring and defending its waters and adjacent approaches rather than collecting intelligence along China’s coast?

Where Medcalf’s reasoning goes off the rails is the implication that Australia is there to demonstrate its support of norms and international law.

First of all, its ally – the US – that it is supporting and assisting in the South China Sea has not ratified the constitution of the oceans – UNCLOS – that it is using to justify its presence. 

Moreover, Australia is hardly a shining example of conformance with international order. It also violates UNCLOS with its EEZ claim on the Heard and McDonald rocks and its mandatory requirement of pilotage for foreign vessels passing through the Torres Strait. But most embarrassing for Australia in this regard is its behavior regarding its maritime boundary dispute with Timor-Leste.  

Yet in an epitome of hypocrisy, Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson joined US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in urging adherence to UNCLOS: “Respect for international laws, including UNCLOS, is fundamental to peace, prosperity and stability in the region.” 

While that remark was clearly aimed at China, this applies to the US and Australia as well.

Regional partnerships

Finally, Medcalf cites Australia’s partnership with its Asian neighbors. After the recent dangerous incident between Chinese and Australian warplanes near the China-held Paracel Islands, the Australian Defense Department said it “has for decades undertaken maritime surveillance activities in the region.” 

The original excuse for the presence of Australian ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) aircraft over the South China Sea was the Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA). But this has morphed from a pact to protect Malaysia and Singapore after the British withdrawal from the region to one of support for the US effort to contain China. 

Moreover, this 1971 Cold War agreement among Australia, the UK, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore provides only for “consultation” in the event or threat of an armed attack on any party. There is no specific commitment to intervene militarily. 

The enforcement of a state’s EEZ rights is not mentioned, although I suppose the state can ask for assistance in doing so. The FPDA has an Integrated Air Defense System for Malaysia and Singapore based in Butterworth, Malaysia, under Australia’s command. While most exercises take place off the coasts of Malaysia and Singapore, some have extended into the South China Sea. However, Malaysia’s EEZ claim stops well short of China’s coast.  

Indeed, the FPDA does not justify Australia’s intelligence-collection flights along China’s coast. Moreover, Australian Poseidon P-8s also operate over the South China Sea from Singapore, Brunei, Manila and Darwin. These flights may be undertaken under the controversial Five Eyes (FVEY) pact. This is an alliance among Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US that focuses on sharing of signals intelligence.

It originated as an anti-Soviet effort but has greatly expanded its remit. Edward Snowden has described FVEY as a “supra-national organization that does not answer to known laws of its own countries.” Its member states even spy on one another’s citizens to get around domestic prohibitions on such by the members’ own governments.

If this is the justification for the Australian ISR probes of China’s defenses, Canberra may wish to reconsider whether it wants to continue to serve as a US proxy in this endeavor. 

It is true that AUKUS – the agreement to supply nuclear-submarine and underwater-drone technology to Australia – will eventually make Australia a recognized player and merge its navy with that of the US in operations in the South China Sea.

But that is as a participant in the US strategy to contain China. This is not at the request of the regional countries. Indeed, some are quite opposed to AUKUS as they see it as the beginning of a renewed arms race.

Poking China in the eye

The next step for Australia may be to undertake FONOPs against China’s claims, either unilaterally or with the US. Despite strong US pressure, Australia has so far declined to do so.  It has good reasons. Doing so could well trigger conflict. This would be the ultimate of supporting an ally – sacrificing itself and its people for it. 

But the Australian people may not know that their government is risking their welfare to support the US containment strategy. It is one thing to support allies in a war. But it is quite another to help it provoke a war in which it will be one of the first victims.

Australian Defense Secretary Richard Marles has declared, “Our national interest lies in the East China Sea and the South China Sea in what are the rules of the road – the global rules-based order.” He said Australia would continue its ISR probes in the South China Sea. It seems that Australia is bent on poking China in the eye regardless of the consequences.

Perhaps it should consider how it would react if Chinese ISR planes were operating off its coast, probing its defenses and dropping sonobuoys to detect its submarine. As an indication, in May, then-defense minister Peter Dutton called the presence of a Chinese intelligence-collection ship in its EEZ off Exmouth Naval Base an “aggressive act.”

The situation is becoming increasingly dangerous. There was hope that the new Labor administration under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would take a more rational, longer-term view 0n relations with China. But it has already earned China’s anger by publicly criticizing Beijing’s response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan.  

Indeed, this serious situation raises fundamental questions for the Albanese government. How far should Australia go on behalf of the US in this game of military chicken in the South China Sea? 

Australia may be sleepwalking into kinetic conflict with China in the South China Sea. The government should be clear and honest with its people as to the risks Australia faces and why it is taking them in a sea so far from its shores.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.