Australia sides with U.S. in South China Sea dispute

FOREIGN MINISTER Marise Payne has been lauded for showing Australia’s independent spirit. We have apparently shown the U.S. that we will not be drawn into any new “coalition of the willing” as America begins to shift its China policy from “containment” to something akin to “roll-back”.

It would be nice if it were the case but is it really so?

On the one hand, Australia is being praised for not toeing the U.S. line about intrusions into disputed waters within the 12-mile zone off the new Chinese “islands”. On the other hand, Australia has loudly declared any claims by China to waters inside its ‘nine-dash line’ as being illegal. It all needs a little thought.

Australia has made a rather dramatic change in policy and ditched any pretence at diplomatic language. There had been a relatively measured approach, whereby all sides to the disputed waters were urged to show restraint. From urging restraint to denunciations of illegality is quite a step and yet it is in lockstep with shifts in American strategic doctrine, as revealed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

We are witnessing a major change in American foreign policy toward China. The days of engagement, from Richard Nixon’s visit when China was seen as a means of boosting profitability for American business, shifted dramatically when China began its rise. The line became one of containment, but this is no longer enough. Pompeo signalled a new approach; “roll-back” and with it an alarming echo to its policy in the days immediately before the Korean War.

Australia’s declaration of the illegality of China’s claims is an endorsement of the American policy shift. States tend to justify actions based on the absurd claim of “national interest”. It is generally impossible to separate national interest from economic interest, so how does this play out in the South China Sea?

At the core is the all but universally recognised fact that the U.S. is economically on the slide and China’s star is on the rise. The U.S. will never accept this truth and will do all in its power to ensure that the sun does not set on its”‘empire”. China, for its part is doing all that it can to facilitate its economic rise to hegemony.

Geography, alongside economic interest, plays a major role in this conflict.