We’ve been watching Australia get increasingly anxious about Beijing’s behavior, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull faces increasing domestic pressure to push back more forcefully in the South China Sea. Now, it looks like Canberra is going to take a more assertive posture. The WSJ:
Australia’s government is strengthening its U.S. alliance and plowing ahead with a 10-year, $140 billion military expansion amid rising regional tensions over China’s muscle-flexing on key trade routes in the South China Sea.
A defense blueprint released by Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday urged Beijing to be more forthcoming about its security intentions in the South China Sea, where China is building artificial islands on disputed reefs.
“We are a maritime power, we are an island nation,” Mr. Turnbull said. “We operate in a region where sea lanes, freedom of access to navigation, where maritime assets in a naval sense are growing, both submarine and surface vessels.”
While stopping short of directly confronting China over the artificial islands, the defense blueprint warned the construction would have a “major impact” on the stability of the Pacific and Indian Ocean region in coming decades.
This is especially significant given the murmurs sometimes heard in Australia about the need to find some kind of balance between its security relationship with the U.S. and its trading relationship with China.
The white paper makes clear that Australia is building up its military and will do its part in a common effort to stand up to China. Australians have learned, as have many others, that the best way to work with China is a mix of firmness (and resistance to bullying) with pragmatic flexibility and willingness to engage where interests are aligned. Prime Minister Turnbull seems to have come around to believe that robust participation in the Asian maritime coalition that seeks to defend the freedom of the seas is the best way forward.