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Mid-East chaos must not distract us from China’s aggression in the South China Sea

April 17 | Jennifer Parker

Image: The President of the Philippines Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos


While all eyes are on the Middle East, following Iran’s escalatory attack on Israel, the West Philippine Sea must remain a focal point for Australia. If not carefully managed, it is in the West Philippine Sea that conflict in the Indo-Pacific could spark.


Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel reinforces the view that certain states are feeling emboldened to abandon the 1945 UN Charter. This revisionist view on the principles that underwrite global stability is demonstrating that the alliances and partnerships may not be the deterrent they once were.


It is in this context Australia must be clear on its support of The Philippines – a message the US appears to have heeded. Last week leaders from the US, Japan and The Philippines took part in the inaugural trilateral leaders meeting. Among the usual discussion points was a clear articulation by the US President as to the nature of the alliance with The Philippines and Japan, stating it was “ironclad”.


The emphasis came on the back of a statement from Joe Biden during his bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, reiterating his “unwavering commitment” to “defence of Japan under Article V of the treaty, using its full range of capabilities, including nuclear capabilities”.


Similar statements were made by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during his March visit to The Philippines, where he emphasised that the US is obligated to defend The Philippines, if its forces, ships or aircraft came under armed attack in the South China Sea.


Clarity in the US alliance commitments, particularly over islands China disputes with Japan and The Philippines, is important. With actions such as Iran’s designed to test alliances, a key element of their deterrence effect is the belief by a potential adversary that allies and partners will follow through with their commitments. It is in this vein that Australia must continue to demonstrate to China that it supports The Philippines.


Until recent weeks, the Indo-Pacific was in danger of China’s aggression towards The Philippines becoming the status quo. Every month, The Philippines would attempt to resupply its marines at Second Thomas Shoal. Every month, China would attempt to blockade the Shoal with aggressive manoeuvring and use of water cannons against Philippine vessels, incrementally increasing aggression to test the resolve of The Philippines, its partners and allies.


The ritual tussle increased in ferocity and severity in the past 12 months, with China’s actions twice resulting in injuries to Philippine sailors. Despite the clear legal position, affirmed by the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal, that Second Thomas Shoal is a low-tide elevation within The Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, responses from its allies, partners and neighbours have at times been underwhelming.


Each incident has been followed by ambassadorial level condemnation, and generic statements by prime ministers and foreign ministers about the importance of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the international rules-based order. However, this lukewarm approach by The Philippines’ partners and allies has started to heat up following the latest incident of Chinese aggression on March 23, directly following Blinken’s visit to The Philippines.


In that incident, a Philippine resupply vessel was again water cannoned by the Chinese Coast Guard, with graphic imagery released of China’s Coast Guard and maritime militia surrounding a Philippine Coast Guard vessel. This prompted The Philippines President to state that he intended to implement “proportionate and reasonable” countermeasures.


While it’s not clear what these might entail – the incident prompted government level statements from many countries including Australia, and execution of a maritime activity between ships from Australia, Japan, the US and The Philippines in the South China Sea on April 7. It has also clearly led to the US finding it necessary to restate its alliance relationship, should there be any be any ambiguity in China’s mind about its resolve to support The Philippines.


While it is pleasing to see the increased Australian response to China’s aggression in the South China Sea, it is important that this is maintained and, where necessary, increased. The narrative of diplomatic and trade stabilisation between China and Australia cannot be used to mask acceptance of the status quo of China’s aggression in the South China Sea.


In light of the attacks by Iran on Israel, it is important, now more than ever, to ensure there is no room for ambiguity in China’s calculus that Australia supports its strategic partnership with The Philippines and will not allow China’s aggression in the region to become the unremarked status quo. Deterring China from further escalating its actions in the South China Sea is central to deterring conflict in the region.

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