AUSTRALIA’S relationship with China is getting increasingly complex. There’s no denying it.
On one hand, China is our biggest trading partner, and we’re mutually reliant on one another.
On the other, we have a duty to support the United States in opposing the rising superpower’s claims to the South China Sea.
Last month, one of the United States’ most senior ex-military officers Admiral Dennis Blair called on the Australian Defence Force to participate in joint military exercises with the US in the South China Sea.
“I think Australian and American ships should exercise together in the South China Sea, showing that, when they need to, they will send their armed forces in international airspace and water,” he told the ABC’s Four Corners.
“We count on Australian mates being there when serious issues are at stake.”
But with the increase in threats we’ve received from the country’s government and media over the past year, are we just damaging one of our most crucial relationships?
WHY AUSTRALIA IS INVOLVED IN THE DISPUTE
Many Australians remain concerned about whether China’s rise will negatively impact us. But it’s not as simple as just pulling back and “keeping out” of the conflict.
Professor Jonathan Odom from the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii stressed Australia has a vital role to play in the South China Sea dispute.
Asked whether it’s really necessary for the west to maintain a presence in the region — which it has no territorial interests in — Odom said the United States’ involvement has kept things peaceful over the past few decades.
As an alliance with the US, Australia can take partial credit for this peace.
“That presence serves as a deterrence,” he told news.com.au in a conference. Speaking of our allies in the region — Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, he said “it shows that we’re there, that we’re able to respond if we’re needed to.
“I’d say part of the reason there hasn’t been a conflict in the Asia-Pacific region is because we’ve been able to provide that kind of security insurance, and as a result you see the Asia-Pacific region has flourished economically over the past few decades.
“I think, in that respect, we’ve been able to help ensure conditions of stability without some sort of ulterior motive.”
Odom said countries like Australia, which have greater military capabilities, have a larger responsibility.
“A lot of countries don’t have blue-water navies,” he said. “Australia is one of the countries that does have a blue-water navy, and so they do have a little more responsibility to use it when it’s appropriate in the international community.
“I know Australia has a strong economic relationship with China. I’m not saying everything needs to go in one particular direction, and destroy international relationships, but at the same time there are certain issues that — on a matter of principal — you have to stand up for.
“Freedom of the sea is one of those things. I take that principal very seriously, and so I’m always advocating that everyone that’s capable should do whatever they can to preserve that freedom, whether it’s through diplomatic protests, public statements or operational activities.”
WHERE DO OUR POLTICIANS STAND?
As we speak, our politicians are grappling with whether we’re doing enough to maintain stability in the South China Sea.
The federal opposition has recently sought to clarify its controversial position on this.
Speaking to Sky News earlier this week, Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles confirmed a Labor government would allow Australia’s military to conduct freedom-of-navigation exercises in the disputed region.
“A significant operation of that kind would ultimately include the approval of government,” he said.
He wouldn’t confirm or deny whether it would authorise freedom of navigation operations within 12 nautical miles (22km) of the artificial islands.