This is a disconcerting period for all those hoping to see more pushback against China's bid for supremacy in the South China Sea, and its pressure tactics towards that end. The US is in the throes of an epochal political convulsion masquerading as a presidential election campaign. Its ability to focus on China and the South China Sea is being further diluted by Russia's strategic pyrotechnics and North Korea's leap forward towards a working nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile a cagey US lead in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, totaling just three US Navy innocent passage transits in a year, and no acknowledged military overflight, has hardly encouraged commitment from normally dependable allies like Australia.
Moreover, since the Philippines' legal triumph in The Hague mid-July, President Rodrigo Duterte has thrown an insurgent's hand grenade into his predecessor's post-tribunal game plan, not to mention the US-Philippines alliance. This is sparking wider 'Finlandisation' fears across Southeast Asia. While such concerns are probably overwrought, stand by for further disappointment when Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib visits Beijing at the end of October. It will get worse before it gets better.
In such an unsteady climate one might readily conclude that Canberra's calibrated caution on the South China Sea is understandable, if not prudent. Australia maintains neutrality on the sovereignty disputes but has provided declaratory support for freedom of navigation and robustly backed the Hague tribunal ruling as final and binding . Yet this diplomatically-forward position belies the Turnbull government's operational conservatism about joining the US in kinetically contesting the excessive claims of China (and others) in the South China Sea, even though these are non-combat operations – and in marked contrast to our open-ended air combat commitment in the Middle East. Canberra has settled on a watch-and-wait policy of not operating within 12 nautical miles (nm) of disputed features, at least for the duration of the Obama administration.
Perhaps sensing hesitancy, Beijing berated Australia directly and indirectly after Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's statement supporting the tribunal award. Now senior Chinese military officers have again weighed in, urging Canberra to be 'cautious' in the South China Sea.
Canberra's silence on Australian freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and overflights in this context could be interpreted as acquiescence in the face of Chinese pressure. So, it is good that the Opposition has rejoined the political debate in Australia. Many, including me, assumed that former shadow defence minister Stephen Conroy's interventions on the subject were time limited to the Federal election earlier this year. However, Conroy's successor, Richard Marles, recently renewed Labor's offensive, urging the government to 'authorise' the ADF to conduct operations within 12 nm.
Marles' framing of FONOPs as an activity that politicians should leave to military professionals was fundamentally flawed on the principle of civilian control. A decision of such importance should not be delegated to military commanders. In peacetime, only the prime minister and cabinet can assume that responsibility. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating was right to call him out . But Mr Keating himself belongs to a chorus of elder statesmen in Australia, not limited to ALP circles, consistent in urging caution in Australia's approach towards the South China Sea. This has at times edged into advocacy of what might be termed an 'accommodationist' position towards China.
Labor's Penny Wong, when interviewed at the weekend, reiterated her support for 'the principle' of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, on the basis that governments 'always authorise activities', in consultation with allies and partners. She also appeared to caveat Labor's support for Australian FONOPs on the basis that such action should not escalate 'particularly where you are asserting that others should de-escalate'. This has the effect of softening the hardline edge to Marles' comments, distancing the Opposition from backing a solo FONOP demonstration by Australia.
While the gap between the parties may be narrowing, the FONOP question triggered unusually testy exchanges last week in Parliament. Malcolm Turnbull accused Labor of 'immaturity and unreadiness to take responsibility', while Ms Bishop dismissed Marles' comments as 'vague mutterings'. In her counter-attack, Bishop added that sailing within 12 nm of contested features in the South China Sea is 'something Australia has not ever done before', confirming what has been previously suspected but not officially confirmed. I doubt we would have had such clarity otherwise.
In fact, for as long as this remains the Government's position, it would be advisable for the RAAF and RAN to keep their distance from Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea. The ADF are frequently present there on the surface and in the air. But operating close to the 12-nm mark from Chinese-occupied features could be misread as offering customary recognition of territorial sea and airspace – including submerged reefs that have no jurisdictional rights at all. Last month, RAAF chief Air Marshal Leo Davies said that although the South China Sea is an extremely low-threat air environment, 'We do not plan to overfly just because we could'. His observation that 'There are claims within that area that are nothing to do with Australia' suggests a further and perhaps more political distancing.
Last year, I argued that a distinctly Australian FONOP was worth it on balance to underline concerns and interests that are defined independently of the US. However, the surface environment near China's artificial features in the Spratlys is becoming more complex and potentially threatening . This is informing US preferences for a 'rainbow' coalition approach to FONOPs with allies and partners, not simply for reasons of political solidarity but out of a basic need for force security. A solo Australian surface FONOP, while still possible, will entail operational risk. This may reinforce Canberra's caution, although overflight is legally clear cut and, for the moment, less risky.
Realistically, no multi-national operation on a significant scale is likely to happen before the next US administration can formulate its policy on the South China Sea. That does not mean that US allies and partners should simply wait. This is precisely the time for allies to show leadership, not by launching uncoordinated quixotic actions – that would suit China – but by consulting and coordinating on ways to demonstrate rights of access to international air and sea-space in the South China Sea, within heightened but acceptable bounds of risk. For a concerted international approach to have meaningful effect it cannot be composed only of Asian treaty allies and European powers, like France or the UK. Asia including Southeast Asia needs to be represented. Canberra should also continue to explore ways to keep The Hague tribunal ruling alive, creatively maximising the value of Canberra's seat at the tables of ASEAN-plus summitry.
A measure of operational forbearance was justified in the period that followed the Hague ruling . We are moving beyond that hiatus now. Fear of 'provocation' or escalation with China should not be allowed to stymie the initiative. The South China Sea is not yet 'lost', but maintaining access will require a broad multinational effort. Canberra can help to lay the groundwork for the next phase.