Commentary | 02 August 2016

We must not be bullied out of South China Sea

Originally published in The Australian.

Originally published in The Australian.

Executive Summary

Saturday’s hectoring editorial in China’s Global Times newspaper (“ ‘Paper cat’ Australia will learn its lesson”) should be concerning for all Australians, not only their government.

Long known for its tub-thumping drumbeat, the Global Times, with a circulation of more than two million readers, does not carry the weight of The People’s Daily.

But it is state-aligned nonetheless, its editorials passing through some official filter.

So it matters when the Global Times fires a rhetorical broadside at Canberra, complete with insults and threats of revenge.

The issue at hand is Australia’s “delirious” diplomatic support for The Hague arbitration tribunal ruling on the South China Sea, which last month found emphatically in favour of The Philippines, deeming China’s maritime claims to be excessive.

Australia is accused of “blunt double standards” in regard to its sovereignty claims in Antarctica and “disputes with other countries over territory”, an oblique reference to East Timor although no actual territory is in dispute with Dili (a telling mistake on Global Times’ part).

That much was expected. China’s hostility towards the ruling was long telegraphed.

Australia’s forward position in urging China to abide by the binding judgment makes it an obvious target for a share of Middle Kingdom opprobrium.

However, the Global Times editorial goes much further.

Many Australians will be offended by barbs about their country’s “uncivilised” origins as an “offshore prison of the UK”, colonised in “a process filled with the tears of the Aboriginals”.

These are not the words one expects from a country rated as Australia’s closest friend in Asia, according to the Lowy Institute 2016 poll. But insults can be shrugged off more easily than pledges of revenge.

The editorial continues: “If Australia steps into the South China Sea waters, it will be an ideal target for China to warn and strike.” Australia’s power “means nothing compared to the security of China”. It pays not to be too thin-skinned in international relations. But let’s call this out as the unmistakeable tactic of a bully: undermine your target’s self-esteem, followed up by threats of harm.

A big country picking on a smaller country, with a “scarce population” and an “inglorious history”.

This is not the first time Global Times has had Australia in its sights over the South China Sea.

Late last year, referring to regular Australian reconnaissance flights under Operation Gateway, the newspaper warned “it would be a shame if one day a plane fell from the sky and it happened to be Australian”.

This weekend’s missive was unambiguously hostile, summoning up invective reminiscent of North Korea.

Given this hyperbole there is the question of how seriously to treat it. The key question is: does this signal a genuine intention on Beijing’s part to punish Australia, or is it theatrical high dudgeon calculated for effect?

Whatever the Global Times’ intention, such a crassly phrased effort at intimidation should awaken more Australians to China’s growing chauvinism and the strategic risks it poses.

However, I suspect it will only serve to reaffirm the views of many already inclined to see entrapment within the US alliance as the greater risk to Australia’s security. Such are the craggy furrows of our national debate.

The editorial does not merit any official response from Canberra. That would only dignify it, and risk validating a hardline position that China’s authorities have not officially taken.

Washington also may want to keep any ensuing messages of reassurance to Canberra low-key for this reason.

China should be judged primarily on its actions. So far, Beijing’s reactions to The Hague ruling have been restricted mainly “non-kinetic”.

Yet the fact Vietnam, the only Southeast Asian country to express its support, saw its national airline hacked last weekend does not bode well — especially once Beijing’s host role for the G20 summit next month is out of the way.

There is a further question: is the objective behind the Global Times editorial not simply to deter an Australian freedom of navigation operation but to keep the Australian Defence Force permanently out of the South China Sea?

On that, Canberra must continue pushing back in deed, as well in word, ensuring that the RAAF and RAN maintain a consistent presence there.

If the thread of that legally enshrined longstanding access is spooled in, Canberra’s defence relations in Southeast Asia will be significantly compromised.

More important, we will have been bullied.


Euan Graham is international security program director at the Lowy Institute.