Malcolm Turnbull’s Reluctant Shift on the South China Sea

By Ellen Chambers —

Royal Australian Navy Adelaide-class guided-missile frigate HMAS Newcastle at Pearl Harbor. Source: Wikimedia, U.S. Government Work.

Royal Australian Navy Adelaide-class guided-missile frigate HMAS Newcastle at Pearl Harbor. Source: Wikimedia, U.S. Government Work.

The increasing militarization of the South China Sea in recent months has the Australian government, and many of its partners in the region, on heightened alert. Rhetoric alone is no longer a viable tactic against China’s assertive actions, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seems to have been drawn unwilling into adopting a tougher stance against Beijing. While the 2016 Defence White Paper does not detail specific Australian Defence Force operations, it appears that more robust action in the South China Sea is forthcoming.

Turnbull, a businessman earlier, assumed Australia’s top leadership position with great affection for China. He has frequently remarked on the global benefits of China’s rise and championed its importance to Australia’s economic growth and prosperity. His aversion toward openly confronting China in the South China Sea therefore came as no surprise. Though Turnbull has spoken since the beginning of his premiership about the challenges posed by China’s rise, he has preferred to rely on soft diplomacy.

While officials in the United States and Southeast Asian nations have directly challenged China over its militarization and accused it of violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Turnbull has only issued statements of caution. While he has been quick to speak in favor of a rules-based international order, bold public action to underline that support has been noticeably lacking.

China’s recent placement of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets on Woody Island, along with high-powered radar facilities in the Spratly Islands, has been a catalyst for mounting political pressure on Turnbull to reevaluate his posture. The Australian political opposition has repeatedly called for an increase in freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. Stephen Conroy, the Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) defense spokesman, wrote in The Australian on January 21 that “Australia should be prepared to act to support the international system in the South China Sea, and we should not be shy about our actions and intentions in doing so.”

More recently, the ALP announced on February 18 that, if victorious in elections later this year, it would launch an independent freedom of navigation operation within claimed territorial waters off the disputed islands. Under UNCLOS, the disputed islands are not entitled to territorial seas, prompting Conroy to declare that Australia can sail “legally [and] peacefully” within the 12 nautical mile limit.

Turnbull’s diplomacy has also faced a challenge from the ruling party, spearheaded by former prime minister Tony Abbott. During a speech in Tokyo on February 26, Abbott underscored the need for Australia to exercise freedom of navigation rights “because this is not something that the United States should have to police on its own.” As former prime minister, Abbott’s comments add considerable weight to the political pressure and growing division within the ruling Coalition government on the need to conduct an independent FONOP that directly challenges China’s claims.

U.S. military officers also agree that protecting freedom of navigation should be a shared responsibility. Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, during a recent visit to Sydney said that he wished challenges to Beijing’s provocations in the South China Sea were not seen as the United States versus China, but instead “all countries, no matter what the size or strength” preserving their rights under maritime law. When asked if he meant that Australia should conduct FONOPs in the disputed areas, Admiral Aucoin responded with a frank “yes.” His comments go beyond those made by any other U.S. officials and exemplify the growing international pressure on Australia to increase its contribution to the protection of a rules-based order in the South China Sea.

Facing the reality of events and internal and external pressure, Turnbull has been forced to revisit his hopes of focusing mainly on deepening Australia’s friendship with China. The long-anticipated 2016 Defence White Paper released on February 25 represents an unwilling shift from a position of restraint to one of assertive action, and is the strongest indicator of the Turnbull government’s reinvigorated approach.

While an independent FONOP before mid-year federal elections is still uncertain, the massive commitment to scale-up maritime defense capabilities signals an expectation for increased engagement in the South China Sea. The defense white paper will see Australia increase its defense budget to 2 percent of its gross domestic product by 2020-21, boost defense spending by more than $20 billion in the next ten years, build 12 new submarines to replace the aging fleet, and purchase new equipment including frigates, armored personnel carriers, fighter jets, and drones.

Turnbull no longer has the political room to gamble on the belief that China will accept and play by the established rules, and so is moving to boost Australia’s capability to defend regional maritime security interests. The defense white paper is explicit in acknowledging that the South China Sea will become the main theater of competition between some of the world’s greatest powers, and acknowledges the need for Australia to match its military capacity with the demands of regional maritime security threats. Independent freedom of navigation operations that challenge China’s territorial claims are thus undoubtedly in Australia’s future.

Ms. Ellen Chambers is a master’s degree candidate at the School of International Service at American University.



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