Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has directly confirmed Australia does not conduct freedom of navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea, as part of an attack on Labor’s more hardline policy.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten confirmed in mid-September Labor would continue to adopt their former defence spokesman Stephen Conroy’s line on the South China Sea – that Australia should authorise the Navy to conduct freedom of navigation exercises within the 12 nautical miles to challenge China’s claims.
After criticism from former Foreign Minister Bob Carr on the same issue, the party’s position came under attack from former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating on Tuesday morning, who told The Australian such a stance is effectively outsourcing decisions to the Navy and breaks the doctrine of civilian control of the military.
Australian public opinion toward has Beijing has gotten pretty “complicated“, according to a recent Lowy Institute poll: 30 percent of the population thinks China is Australia’s “best friend in Asia”, compared to only 25 percent bestowing Japan with the title. These warm feelings appear to mostly spring from the fact that China’s rise is providing an important boost to the Aussie economy, but they are tempered by skepticism about China’s regional, militarized pushiness, its human rights record, and its environmental policies. As a result, 74 percent favor Australia conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea—a policy advocated by Labor.
Turnbull has modulated his response. He responded to China’s deployment of missile systems in the South China Sea with unusually strong language back in February. In more recent months, he’s strengthened military ties with Japan. But Tuesday’s statement from Foreign Minister Bishop that Australia will not participate in freedom of navigation exercises shows just how far his government is prepared to go.
Keep an eye on this space. Turnbull’s bold decision to hold a double dissolution election in June backfired when he nearly failed to win the 76 seats he needed to form a majority. Now, the Liberals are left with the minimum needed to govern, and Labor seems to be smelling blood. On foreign policy, Bishop and Turnbull are trying to position themselves as the cautious, steady-handed option. But it remains to be seen if Australians will agree that Labor’s stance on China is really so feckless.