June 9, 2017 12:00 pm JST
Lavina Lee

Turnbull speaks truth to Beijing on South China Sea

Australian leader warns that coercion risks provoking Asia-wide resistance

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivers the keynote address at the 16th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore on June 2. © AP

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull highlighted the dilemmas facing so-called "middle power" countries in his most significant address on regional affairs at the Shangri- La Dialogue meeting in Singapore of top defense officials.

Some of what Turnbull said in his June 2 speech was familiar: the U.S. is the indispensable power in the region; Canberra will continue to forge security relationships with other countries; perceptions that middle powers must choose between the U.S. and China are a poor reflection of reality.

Less expected, however, were Turnbull's blunt comments about Chinese behavior, particularly in the South China Sea. During Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Australia in March, the prime minister assiduously avoided any mention of China's consolidation of control over the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea in defiance of a July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

In a press conference with Li, Turnbull went so far as to praise the achievements of the Ming Dynasty-era Admiral Zheng He, who is said to have led a convoy of Chinese ships through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean in the 15th century in what Beijing has characterized as a benign show of Chinese naval reach and strength.

The admiral's voyages -- real or exaggerated -- are cited frequently by Beijing to emphasize China's historic and moral claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. So Beijing may have concluded in March that its use of selective history as propaganda had worked on the Australian leader.

Not so. On the grander stage of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Turnbull warned Beijing that any attempt to create a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia -- a regional equivalent of the 19th century U.S. "Monroe Doctrine" barring foreign intervention in South and Central America -- would lead to resistance and an escalating security dilemma.

Pointedly, he stated that: "A coercive China would find its neighbors resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space, and look to counterweight Beijing's power by bolstering alliances and partnerships, between themselves and especially with the United States."

Indeed, he reminded Beijing that "maintaining the rule of law in our region, respecting the sovereignty of nations large and small is the key to continued peace and stability."

Australia has already concluded that the time for fence-sitting has passed, and that the cost of staying silent could result in the slow unraveling of the alliance system that has guaranteed stability in the region since World War II. Canberra's 2016 Defense White Paper says as much. Much to the delight of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, the Australian prime minister has now publicly reaffirmed that assessment.

During an annual meeting between the foreign and defense ministers of Australia and the U.S. earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised China's artificial island construction and militarization in the South China Sea and warned Beijing that it could not buy its way out of behaving as a responsible power.

Since China does not tend to take direct criticism well, many Australian diplomats may well wring their hands at this. When speaking truth to Chinese power, they fear retribution in some form. Yet such apprehensions are overblown. China is already conditioned to the reality that the U.S. alliance forms the cornerstone of Australia's security. Canberra can gain nothing from giving Beijing cause to relax that expectation.

Australia will remain a reliable and efficient supplier of raw materials for China's industrialization, and an attractive destination for investment by its state-owned enterprises and private companies. The country is eager for Chinese capital but unlike those with few other options, such as Cambodia and Laos, it is not overly reliant on Beijing. China trades with and invests in Australia because it is in its interests to do so -- not because it is trying to reshape Canberra's strategic policies.

Turnbull's forthright position is also consistent with the regional zeitgeist. Australia is far from the only Asian country that has a close security relationship with the U.S. and a major trading relationship with China. Yet an overwhelming number of regional states are clamoring for greater, rather than less, American presence in the region.

Missed opportunities

Turnbull did miss one opportunity in Singapore, however. He could have done more to chide the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations for failing to speak out on the South China Sea while states that do not have territorial claims in the area are doing so.

ASEAN states -- several of which have contested claims in the South China Sea -- are most likely to feel the consequences of the area becoming a Chinese lake. Yet a divided ASEAN remains largely silent, even though Australia, Japan, the U.S. and India have declared that the recent court ruling is a binding and definitive expression of international law.

Many ASEAN member states are putting their faith in a binding "Code of Conduct," a quixotic project that began some 15 years ago following the conclusion in 2002 of a non-binding "Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea." China and ASEAN have subsequently produced an opaque "framework" for a code of conduct, but a binding agreement is nowhere in sight.

The problem for many ASEAN members is that time is not on their side. As Beijing continues to change facts on the ground by building artificial islands and locating military assets on them, ASEAN seems to be taking inspiration from the apocryphal story of the Roman Emperor Nero, who is said to have fiddled while Rome burned in A.D. 64.

Their inability to take strong and decisive diplomatic action may well be fatal to the goal of ASEAN centrality -- the concept that ASEAN sets the diplomatic agenda in the region through meetings such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. If frustration with ASEAN continues to grow, other countries may make their own arrangements -- paying little more than lip-service to ASEAN centrality.

One possibility is the revival of a 2007 Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, which was disbanded in 2008. Already, there is deepening strategic cooperation between the U.S., Japan and Australia, and between the U.S., Japan and India. It would be a small step for a new formal arrangement between these four countries to re-emerge in some form.

More generally, Australia has drawn a line in the sand against Chinese behavior from which Canberra will find it difficult to retreat. Turnbull joins leaders in Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi and Singapore in criticizing China in ever more blunt terms. How China -- and ASEAN -- respond will be key to the form that any new or revamped defense arrangement might take among the region's Indo-Pacific powers.

Lavina Lee is a lecturer in the department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University in Sydney.

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