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South China Sea on a Boil
What Is Australia’s China Policy?

Australia is sending its own mixed signals about the South China Sea, according to Bloomberg:

Australia wouldn’t take part in any U.S. naval patrols aimed at testing China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and isn’t taking sides in disputes over one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, Trade Minister Andrew Robb said.

Robb’s remarks came after foreign Minister Julie Bishop met U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry this week and said Australia is “on the same page” with the U.S. on the sea, a $5 trillion-a-year shipping route that the American navy has patrolled largely unchallenged since World War II.

Beijing, which issued several stern statements in response to Bishop’s meeting with Kerry and Carter yesterday, is surely pleased by Robb’s remarks. Australia’s new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has historically been friendlier to China than his predecessor was, and many observers expected he would back away from some of Australia’s more anti-China positions. Is such a shift finally happening?

It’s hard to tell. Australia looks set to ratify its trade deal with China, but the deal was negotiated by Turnbull’s predecessor, so this development isn’t anything new. Although it initially looked like a large submarine contract with Japan might fall through, the pressure was mostly coming from domestic unions seeking favorable terms, not from Sinophiles. Now the deal looks like it will probably happen anyway. We’ll need to see more clarification from Canberra to know whether Robb’s comments were in fact the prelude to a change in policy.

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  • Dhako

    Take it from me, Australia had seen the light, and have decided to be strategically neutral at best, or at worse, decidedly ambiguous vis-a-vis south China Sea (SCS). Further, China is Australia largest trading partner, particularly after concluding the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, which is mostly based on commodities as an export to China from Australia.

    Consequently, the current leadership in Canberra have no appetite to get on the wrong side of China on the account of the SCS, regardless how much American huff and puff in requesting Australia to stand with them vis-a-vis China where the dispute of the South China Sea is concern.

    Moreover, just like most ASEAN states (apart from Philippines and Vietnam), so long as China is allowing those states (including Australia) to handsomely benefit from the continental scale Chinese domestic market and indeed will not put any hindrance before these states so that each of them will have in China as their largest trading partner (like South Korea is to China) then, these states as well as Australia will individually refuse to take part on any grand containment strategy against China, particularly if it’s concocted by Uncle Sam, as Obama’s pivot to Asia is presumed to be in much of Asia-Pacific states.

    Hence, keep thinking these states will slit their own “economical jugular” just to join up as a biddable members of some “coalition-of-the-willing” with the US, and I can assure you, you will see soon enough as who has misread the situation entirely. Also, to boot, those legendary moves that was associated with the pivot to Asia on the part of Uncle Sam, will not have any takers from these states, apart from Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam.

    In other words, in Asia, the issue is simpler than any high-minded principle in which US hides it’s hegemony behind it. Which means, the “animating ideas” of this region is about what they care the most, which is about trade, investment, prosperity, and and lastly hard-cash (in it’s crudest manifestation of accumulating as much as humanly possible).

    Consequently, so long as the lifting tide of Chinese economy is also lifting the prospecting boats of these States, then your argument about global common, or about the rules-of-the-road, or even about open seas lane for all, will fall on a deaf ears; provided China doesn’t make their trade with her and with the world more onerous than they are now.

    This means, the concern of the “ownership” of these seas pales into insignificance when set next to their concern about the benefit they can get from China were they to remain a friendly with her. Which is another way of saying, in Asia, follow the money, and there you will see who will be out of his depth when it comes to squaring up to China with the hope of thinking that others in the region will naturally come on board with that agenda, as American have talked themselves into a believing this particular strategical fiction.

    This last line of “follow-the-money”, ought to be simple proposition in which even the Americans with the meanest of intellect should have no difficulty in deciphering it. So, I trust the likes of Professor WRM, will easily see as to why US’s pivot to Asia is unlikely to stop China. Or at least why there wont be any “volunteers” for American’s cause in that region, when it comes to US intention of confronting China in South China Sea (SCS) apart from few states, who are already in the tank for Uncle Sam.

    • jeburke

      Presumably, Australian leaders will take into account that while Chin is their biggest trading partner, Japan and the US are not far behind, Japan is set to overtake China this year as the partner with which Australia has the biggest trade surplus, and Australian security still depends on the US. It’s not as if any American leaders are spoiling for conflict with China. After all, US trade with China (totalling near $600 billion) dwarfs Australia’s.

    • tarentius

      Chinese troll.

    • Jim__L

      If true, this is yet another diplomatic disaster brought to you by the Obama administration. The special relationship between the US and Australia (who followed us into Vietnam, Iraq, etc, and is still willing to buy US military hardware before the requirements are even written) is one of the strongest political-military relationships in the world.

      But if the US turns peacenik and isolationist, it simply makes no sense for Australia to continue that relationship.

      The vast incompetence of this administration truly knows no bounds.

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