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.