29th November 2023 – (Beijing) The expansive South China Sea has emerged as a focal point of tensions between China and regional states, including Australia. Chinese assertiveness over its sweeping maritime claims has raised alarms, while U.S.-aligned states push back through shows of force. As frictions increase, deft diplomacy is essential to prevent uncontrolled escalation. Australia and China both have roles to play in stabilizing these contested waters.
At the heart of disputes is China’s “nine-dash line” claim enveloping much of the South China Sea. Based on purported historic rights, China asserts sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly island chains, among other features. It has built military bases on reclaimed islands, deployed forces and harassed rival claimants’ vessels.
In 2016, an international tribunal invalidated the nine-dash line under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But Beijing rejected this ruling, citing historic rights and its unique interpretation of relevant laws. Tensions have simmered since, amid frequent Chinese shows of force challenging other claimants like Vietnam and the Philippines.
The U.S. labels China a maritime aggressor, conducting frequent “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) to contest its claims. America argues these operations uphold international law, especially innocent passage rights. But China rejects FONOPs as foreign interventions in its waters, further souring ties.
Although not a direct claimant, Australia has aligned closely with the U.S. position. It rejects China’s claims as inconsistent with UNCLOS and backs Washington’s FONOPs. Australia has conducted its own airborne surveillance near Chinese-held islands, invoking Chinese warnings to stay away. Its navy also holds exercises with partners in the South China Sea, rankling Beijing.
For Canberra, upholding universal rules and freedoms of navigation is paramount. Its dependence on unhampered maritime trade also necessitates checking Chinese control. Moreover, letting Beijing unilaterally enforce its claims risks undermining regional stability and the US-led order.
From China’s perspective, foreign military activities in its claimed waters are unacceptable violations of sovereignty. It perceives FONOPs as American attempts to deny China’s historic rights by force. Moreover, China resents U.S. maritime alliances like AUKUS as containing its rise through military pressure, feeling encircled. This exacerbates its threat perceptions.
Clearly, mutual suspicions abound. However, stability demands careful management of differences to avoid uncontrolled escalation. Neither seeks open war, but accidents or miscalculations could spark crises. Hence, renewing crisis management mechanisms and confidence-building measures (CBMs) should be a priority.
There are no innocents in these disputes. Beijing’s opacity over its claims and coercive tactics raise legitimate concerns. But denunciations are unhelpful; engagement and diplomacy better address problematic Chinese behaviours. FONOPs achieve little beyond political point scoring, if even justified legally. They stoke Chinese nationalism against perceived US bullying, empowering hawks. A wiser approach may be discreet consultations over contested interpretations, building trust and understanding.
Likewise, announcing every maritime patrol near China’s claimed waters fans tensions. More prudent would be fostering regional crisis management protocols, where all parties avoid provocations and clarify intentions during close encounters at sea. Progress on a code of conduct between ASEAN states and China would also help, by providing agreed rules of behaviour for managing disputes.
For its part, China must recognize that unilateral assertions and use of force undermine its legitimacy. Genuine good neighbourly relations require upholding UNCLOS principles like freedom of navigation, not asserting special exemptions. Reconciling claims to accommodate others’ rights would ease tensions and serve China’s own interests in stability.
Here, Australia has an important role to play. While maintaining its principles, adopting a less confrontational posture may persuade China to reciprocate. Unilaterally ceasing needlessly provocative actions near Chinese-claimed territories would signal good faith and create space for engagement. Successive Australian governments have expressed a desire for negotiation, not conflict. Wisdom lies in policy aligning with such sentiments.
Of course, finding an appropriate balance between national interests, values and regional realities is difficult for any state. And China-Australia strategic distrust inhibits cooperation. However, determined diplomacy to identify acceptable middle grounds is essential for both to advance a stable modus vivendi. With judicious give and take, the South China Sea need not be perilous shoals but can be charted waters.