28 October 2015
by Tony Walker

Australia on board as US ups ante in China dispute

"Australia is not involved in the current US activity in the South China Sea," defence minister Marise Payne said in a statement.

Australia has responded judiciously to news the US navy has engaged in what is described as a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea to assert America's right to patrol in waters claimed by China as its sovereign territory.

No purpose would be served by Australia seeking at this stage to attach itself to an American naval manoeuvre that risks angering Beijing, and could be construed as an example of a combined Washington-Canberra exercise to poke China in the eye.

However, there is no question that the US naval patrol – in waters off submerged reefs in the Spratly Islands over which there are several claimants, including China – has been coordinated between Washington and Canberra.

The manoeuvre follows a meeting earlier this month of Australian and US foreign and defence ministers in Boston at which the issue was fully canvassed of what do to about China's creeping efforts to assert its sovereignty in disputed waters.

We understand that a loose timetable for American action was canvassed in those talks that would be aimed at sending a clear message to Beijing that its attempts to strengthen its presence on remote South China Sea atolls and sand bars would not go unchallenged.

What appears to have happened in the first instance is that an American Arleigh-Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the USS Larssen, has passed within 12 nautical miles of the Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratlys where China has been engaged in establishing permanent facilities.

Both are regarded as low-tide elevations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. These features are not entitled to special consideration under the Convention beyond a 500-metre navigational safety zone.

The US patrols, therefore, represent a relatively unprovocative gesture, but one, nevertheless, that should be regarded as an important declaration of American intent. Beijing's initial response has been measured.

"If true, we advise the US to think again and before acting, not act blindly or make trouble out of nothing," a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said.

This suggests China is not planning to escalate a war of words at this stage.

But there is no question the American naval patrol represents a significant marker in US security policy aimed at reminding Beijing there are limits to its territorial ambitions.

Washington is using its navy to reinforce the point that disputes over maritime territory need to be resolved according to international law, and not unilaterally.

Defence Minister Payne's statement emphasised Australia's belief that all states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Not least of Canberra's concerns is that 60 per cent of Australia's exports pass through the region.