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China's regional relations: Australia can help

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19 August 2010 09:44

Professor Shen Dingli is Executive Vice Dean of the Institute of International Affairs, Fudan University, Shanghai. He is one of China's most prominent security commentators, and has written for the Lowy Institute on nuclear arms control.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard used 'Yes, we will' to launch her re-election campaign in Brisbane for the Labor Party on 16 August. Her country could also use 'Yes, we will' to help improve China-US and China-Vietnam relations.

Both the US and Australia are powers with keen maritime interests – in both sea-based resources as well free sea lanes of communication. China is also a major maritime stakeholder, with ever increasing sea-based interests, commensurate with its economic growth.  In the second quarter of this year, its economic scale registered the second highest standing in the world. This is a first in over a century for China.

Like many powers before it, China's growing maritime interests overlap with those of others. This is not necessarily ill intended, but needs to be reconciled peacefully among contenders. For instance, China has opposed the USS George Washington's participation in drills in the Yellow Sea, a position that clashes with US interests. This has to be settled through talks. 

China has also argued against US access to its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in South China Sea. This could be easily settled by seeking an authoritative interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, through the International Court of Justice (ICJ). China seems to have claimed most, if not the entire, South China Sea. All parties to the dispute, including China, should abide by The Code of Conduct in the South China Sea signed in 2002, which excludes the use of force.

The US cares about freedom of navigation and believes that China sooner or later will also be interested in this. But, bearing its historical baggage, China feels uncomfortable facing the dominance of the US Navy, especially in the context of Taiwan. After all, it is America which has blocked mainland China's free access to the entire waters around Taiwan. China, on the other hand, has never taken action to deny access to the entire South China Sea by others, in particular in areas beyond its EEZ.

As for China's dispute over territorial waters with Vietnam and others, these are resolvable peacefully either through the mentioned Code of Conduct, or the ICJ. Australia can help by encouraging Beijing and Hanoi's responsible behavior in settling their dispute through talks. By differing from America, which meddles directly, Canberra receives more respect in the region, and could nurture more sensible interaction between China and its neighbors.

Photo by Flickr user #PACOM, used under a Creative Commons license.

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