24.06.2018 Author: James ONeill

South China Sea a Touchstone for the New Realities


At the recent Australia-China Business Council meeting in Canberra, China’s ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye accused Australia of harbouring a cold war mentality, and said that “less bias and bigotry” was needed if the currently strained relationship between the two countries was to be repaired.

Prime Minister Turnbull, addressing the same conference after Mr Cheng, said that the relationship between Australia and China was a “very, very strong one” that could endure differences that might arise from time to time.

The different perspectives of the two men neatly reflect the wider problem in Australia-China relations: that each side has a different perspective that is not easy, and often impossible, to reconcile.

The default position of the Australian media and the political class is suspicion of China. As Andre Vltchek points out in an important essay the reasons for this are rooted in ignorance of Chinese history and culture; racism reflected in discriminatory legislation and practices; and a persistent tendency to view China’s re-emergence as a great power threatening to western values.

There is, he says, an “absolute darkness” and a “withering ignorance” regarding the Chinese view of the world. Instead, everything is filtered through a western prism, often with “unsurpassable arrogance.” This is commonly reflected in Western criticism of China’s alleged flaunting of the “rules based international order.”

According to a Pew Research poll conducted in 2017, in Japan, the United States and Europe a greater proportion of the population viewed China negatively, and this is the view constantly expressed in western media. In the rest of the world however, which accounts for the vast bulk of the world’s population, the reverse is true. Favourable ratings outnumber unfavourable by a ratio of 2:1 – 3:1. This is never reflected in the western media.

The western attitude to China however, goes beyond prejudice and ignorance. The United States, which sees itself as the “exceptional nation” to whom the normal rules do not apply, is actively provoking China in word and deed, and never more obviously than in the South China Sea.

Addressing the Shangri-La Strategic Dialogue conference in Singapore on 2 June 2018 the United States secretary of defence James Mattis warned China of “consequences” for what it has done in the South China Sea. Mattis disinvited China from the RIMPAC multinational naval exercises held annually, saying that was a “relatively small consequence, but I believe there are much larger consequences in the future.”

”Containing” China has long been a US strategic imperative, but the role of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a huge undertaking involving the Eurasian, African and South American continents has given a fresh impetus to American strategy in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The new commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Davidson told his Senate confirmation hearing on 17th of April that his major task was to prepare his forces for war with China, and enlisting as many allies as possible (Australia being a prominent one) in the Pentagon’s campaign to encircle China.

This “containment” already exists in the form of 400 US military bases located in proximity to China (China by contrast has two foreign military bases, one each in Pakistan and Djibouti). The US maintains what it calls a “continuous bomber presence” in the South China Sea. These nuclear-armed bombers are stated by the US to “demonstrate its global strike capacity.”

The US (with Australian military and political support) also conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation” exercises with its warships in the South China Sea. These freedom of navigation operations are an illustration of the hypocrisy that characterizes so much of US and Australian statements on the South China Sea.

The US regularly asserts its “rights” to conduct such exercises because freedom of navigation is guaranteed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to the Convention however, such navigation is exercised in accordance with the rules of international law. Those rules guaranteed the right of “peaceful passage”. Conducting military exercises in disputed territorial waters is not “passage”, peaceful or otherwise.

Furthermore, the US is not even a signatory to the Convention, unlike China that ratified the Convention in 1986. The US military exercises in the South China Sea have in fact nothing to do with freedom of navigation, but rather in practicing and demonstrating its “global strike capability.”

The US is located approximately 12,000km from the South China Sea, and Hainan Island is nearly 7,500km from Canberra. The vast bulk of Chinese Maritime trade passes through the South China Sea (unlike the US or Australia) and if any nation has a strong vested interest in freedom of navigation in these waters it is China.

China’s attitude to the hostile intentions of the US and its allies is undoubtedly reinforced by operation Talisman Sabre, a joint US-Australian naval exercise that practices blockading the narrow (2.5km) Malacca Strait through which more than 80% of China’s oil imports pass.

In this context this is hardly surprising that China has fortified Woody Island in the Paracel Group that lies south east of Hainan and has been occupied solely by China since 1974. An airfield capable of landing military aircraft has been built, and anti aircraft missile batteries installed. It is likely that the Dong Feng 21D Cruise missile system has also been deployed. This anti-ship missile travels at Mach10 and is accurate to within 1 metre. No US ship in the South China Sea is invulnerable and the Dong Feng’s capabilities have rendered obsolete US military power projection that is dependent on the aircraft carrier and its attendant ships and fighter aircraft.

This Chinese activity is invariably portrayed in the west as evidence of Chinese “aggression” or “assertiveness.” It is certainly the latter, and when viewed in the context of US and allied statements and behaviour, entirely understandable.

The reporting bias (it scarcely deserves the term ‘analysis’) comes from the fact that identical conduct has been exhibited by Vietnam (8 fortified islands so far) and Taiwan. In Taiwan’s case it has fortified Taiping Island in the Spratlys, which lie 1637km to the south east of Taiwan.

A similar blindness is shown to the claim brought by the Philippines over the PRC’s ill-defined claims within the so-called 9 Dash Line. This particular claim to rights within the South China Sea was in fact made two years before the PRC came into existence. The successor government to Chiang Kai Shek, who occupy what is now the island of Taiwan, maintains an identical claim to that of the PRC, and was similarly critical of the Tribunal’s decision.

That claim was ostensibly brought by the Philippines, but was in fact argued by British and American lawyers. Its findings have essentially been ignored, not least by the Philippines itself which under President Duterte has made considerable efforts to reduce American influence and improve relations with the PRC.

The 2002 ASEAN-China declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea has the important provision that its members “resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.” That agreement continues to be the basis of negotiations by the parties. In 2017 there was unanimous consent to finalise a code of conduct framework that notably excluded any reference to China’s behaviour in the South China Sea (or that of any other party), and promoted the goal of consultation and maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Yeah could not be a clearer demarcation between the militaristic and confrontational approach of the US and its allies, and those countries actually at the centre of the issues. The US will undoubtedly continue to threaten and bluster about China, joined by its faithful echo chamber in Canberra. The reality however, that the real “rest of the world” is tired of the violent antics of the fading US hegemon and is looking for an alternative strategic framework. The danger resides in the unwillingness of the US to recognise the shift in the geopolitical balance, and in its desperation to maintain the vestiges of its fading hegemony may plunge us all into a further war.

James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.