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Background Brief: An Australian Initiative on the South China Sea? Carlyle A. Thayer July 27, 2012
Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Affairs has just produced a Snapshop report entitled, “What’s at stake in the South China Sea,” written by its Executive Director Michael Wesley. The three-page Shapshot was summarised uncritically by Brendan Nicholson in The Australian (“Warning on Pacific ‘flashpoint’,” July 26, 2012). This is not surprising because a day later the same newspaper published a “World Commentary” piece by Michael Wesley entitled, “Sea of discontent threatens more than Asian unity” (The Australian, July 27, 2012). The letter below was submitted to the Editor of The Australian and was not published. This letter examines the factual and analytical assumptions underlying many of Wesley’s contentious propositions. Additional clarifying comments have been added in brackets.
Editor The Australian July 27, 2012 Michael Wesley’s World Commentary (“Sea of discontent threatens more than Asian unity”, 27/7) contains four highly contentious propositions. First, he asserts that China claimed the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters in 1992. This is an inference drawn by US Navy legal specialists. China, in fact, claimed a 12 nautical mile territorial sea around the Paracel and Spratly islands [China did not issue a map showing the baselines around individual islands and rocks and China did not claim a regime of islands]. This year China’s Foreign Ministry stated that no country [presumably including China] claims the entire South China Sea [China has varied between claiming historic rights to the water inside its 9-dash line map and claiming sovereignty over the islands, rocks and their adjacent waters]. Second, Wesley asserts that China has challenged shipping in the South China Sea. China has not interfered with commercial shipping. There were three incidents involving oil exploration vessels in disputed waters in 2011. China also challenged close-in surveillance by one U.S. military vessel in its Exclusive Economic Zone off Hainan Island in 2009. None of these incidents occurred in an international shipping lane. Third, Wesley claims that China refuses to deal through regional bodies and no current options for managing and resolving disputes have any chance of working. This month the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) unanimously adopted the key elements of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. They have entered into preliminary discussions with China to agree on a final text. Fourth, Wesley calls for Australia to launch a new initiative and cites Bill Hayden’s
role in the Cambodian conflict. Hayden’s initiative was premature and aroused the ire of ASEAN [Hayden’s initiative went dead in the water; Gareth Evans should be credited with the initiative that succeeded]. Australia should pursue three options: diplomatically back ASEAN; as co-chair with Malaysia continue to pursue practical maritime security initiatives through the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus process; and develop a credible conventional submarine force to work with the United States to maintain stability in the South China Sea.
Carlyle Thayer, Emeritus Professor The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
COMMENTARY Since the above letter was written, Foreign Minister Bob Carr has dismissed Michael Wesley’s suggestion that Australia undertake a South China Sea initiative. Speaking on Radio Australia (July 27, 2012), Foreign Minister Carr stated:
I don’t think it is in Australia’s interest to take on for itself a brokering role in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. I don’t think that is remotely in our interest. I think we should adhere to the policy we have got of not supporting any one of the nations making competing territorial claims and reminding them all that we want it settled, because we have a stake in it – 60 percent of our trade goes through the South China Sea… We think a code of conduct is very useful and that is why we have taken a real interest in the work being done in ASEAN towards a set of ASEAN principles on the disputes registered in the South China Sea…
Wesley immediately responded with a blog on his Institute’s The Interpreter. Wesley once again asserted:
As I argued in the [Lowy Institute] Snapshot, ASEAN’s Code of Conduct is part of the problem. Beijing refuses to deal with any of the Southeast Asian claimants unless they abandon a search for a common position. To think that increasing the pressure on China to accede to an ASEANdetermined Code of Conduct will simply prompt Beijing to roll over and accept [it] is a serious misunderstanding of how China works.”
In his Snapshot Wesley writes that “the Philippines insists that ASEAN must find a common position negotiating with China, while China will only negotiate if ASEAN abandons the search for a common position (p. 3). Also in the Snapshot Wesley asserts that China refuses to discuss the South China Sea in any regional meeting (p. 2). Wesley appears to have overlooked the fact that ASEAN have already arrived at a common position and that Chinese and ASEAN senior officials have met to discuss ASEAN’s common position. Last week the ASEAN Foreign Ministers unanimously adopted the key elements of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (Carlyle A. Thayer, “Code of Conduct in the South China Sea Undermined by ASEAN Disarray,” U.S. Naval Institute, July 19, 2012. http://news.usni.org/news-analysis/news/codeconduct-south-china-sea-undermined-asean-disarray). Last week Chinese and ASEAN Senior Officials twice met informally to discuss the next steps. China officially has stated it is willing to discuss the Code of Conduct with ASEAN members “when conditions are ripe.” These discussions are tentatively set for September with a goal of completing the talks by November. Wesley also argues that because the United States supports a unified ASEAN position this will make the Code of Conduct less palatable to Beijing and therefore Australia contributes nothing to resolving the dispute by backing the US and ASEAN. Given
3 that China has played on differences within ASEAN to advance its interests, Wesley’s suggestion is a recipe for disaster. Now more than ever ASEAN needs the backing of its dialogue partners. If Australia is to undertake any diplomatic initiative it should join the other dialogue partners - U.S., Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, the European Union and India - in giving ASEAN their support (the other two dialogue partners are China and Russia). As noted in my unpublished Letter to the Editor, Australia and Malaysia are co-chairs of the Expert Working Group established under the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. The “Plus” refers to eight dialogue partners (US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, Russia and China). Both co-chairs are slowly advancing practical proposals to enhance maritime security in the South China Sea. This is a quiet initiative that Australia should continue to pursue. Wesley looks to Australia’s past successes in launching successful diplomatic initiatives to find inspiration for his current proposal for a new initiative on the South China Sea. Wesley’s proposal would generate criticism by ASEAN and China in the same way that Bill Hayden’s well-meaning but ill-timed initiative on Cambodia did. Such an outcome is not in Australia’s interests. It is notable that former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has weighed in with a short opinion piece published by Project Syndicate on July 26 (http://www.projectsyndicate.org/print/calming-the-south-china-sea), and reprinted in The Australian (“How to calm the South China Sea,” July 28, 2012). This article is notable for its failure to mention any role for Australia in South China Sea diplomacy. Evans, however, does offer advice to China and the United States. Wesley’s two short articles have overlooked Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s recent intense round of shuttle diplomacy. As a result of his initiative all ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to support ASEAN’s Six Principles on the South China Sea. All ASEAN countries are now committed to intensifying consultations on the Code of Conduct. Marty’s intervention put ASEAN-China discussions on a Code of Conduct back on track. Now is the right time for Australia to let ASEAN take the lead and for Australia to provide diplomatic support.
4 Recent Academic Papers by Carlyle A. Thayer on the South China Sea/Maritime Security. Available at http://www.scribd.com/carlthayerg “Maritime Strategic Overview of the Asia-Pacific Region,” Paper delivered to the Inaugural International Maritime Security Conference, co-sponsored by the Republic of Singapore Navy and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore Exposition and Conference Centre, Singapore, May 13-14, 2009. “Recent Developments in the South China Sea – Implications for Peace, Stability and Cooperation in the Region,” Paper presented to International Workshop on “The South China Sea: Cooperation for Regional Security and Development,” co-organised by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and the Vietnam Lawyers’ Association, Hanoi, November 27-28, 2009. “Recent Developments in the South China Sea: Implications for Regional Peace and Prosperity,” Paper presented to the 2nd International Workshop on the South China Sea: Cooperation for Regional Security and Development, co-sponsored by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and the Vietnam Lawyers’ Association, New World Saigon Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, November 12-13, 2010. “The Tyranny of Geography: Vietnamese Strategies to Constrain China in the South China Sea,” Paper to International Studies Association 52nd Annual Convention. Montréal, Québec, Canada. March 16-19, 2011. “China’s New Wave of Aggressive Assertiveness in the South China Sea,” Paper to International Conference on Maritime Security in the South China Sea, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., June 20-21, 2011. “Security Cooperation in the South China Sea: An Assessment of Recent Trends,” Paper to the First Manila Conference on the South China Sea: Toward a Region of Peace, Cooperation, and Progress, co-sponsored by the Foreign Service Institute, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and National Defense College, Dusit Thani Hotel, Makati City, Metro Manila, The Philippines, July 5-6, 2011. “China-ASEAN and the South China Sea: Chinese Assertiveness and Southeast Asian Responses,,” Paper to international conference on Major and Policy Issues in the South China Sea: European and American Perspectives, co-sponsored by Institute of European and American Studies and Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan, October 6-9, 2011. “Will the Guidelines to Implement the DOC Lessen Tensions in the South China Sea? An Assessment of Developments Before and After Their Adoption,“ Paper to 3rd International Workshop on the South China Sea, co-sponsored by the Vietnam Lawyers’ Association and Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, Hanoi, November 3-5, 2011. “Navigating the Currents of Legal Regimes and Realpolitik in East Asia’s Maritime Domain,” Paper to International Conference on Cooperation for the Safety of Navigation in East Asia: Legal Arrangements and Political Implications, organized by the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou City, Hainan Island, People’s Republic of China, November 17-18, 2011.
5 “Maritime Security and the Role of Naval Diplomacy in the South China Sea,” Paper to MIMA Conference on the South China Sea: Recent Developments and Implications for Peaceful Dispute Resolution, The Maritime Institute of Malaysia, Royal Chulan Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 12-13, 2011. “Positioning ASEAN between Global Powers,” Presentation to the 14 th Regional Outlook Forum, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Shangri-la Hotel, Singapore, January 5, 2012. “The South China Sea Disputes and Their Impact on the Security Environment of Southeast Asia: What Lies Ahead?”, Presentation to the International Conference on the Political and Security Implications of the South China Sea Dispute,” co-sponsored by the Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies and the East-West Center, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan, January 12-13, 2012. “Vietnam’s Security Outlook,” Presentation to International Workshop on AsiaPacific Security, National Institute for Defense Studies, Tokyo, Japan, January 17-18, 2012. “Strategic Relations in Asia: An Overview,” Presentation to 4th East Asia Security Outlook Seminar, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Ministry of Defence, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam, February 2, 2012. "The Rise of China and Maritime Security in South East Asia," Presentation to 11th IDE Forum, Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Headquarters, Ark Building, Akasaka, Tokyo, February 9, 2012. “Efforts to Ensure Maritime Security,” Presentation to 2nd Tokyo Defense Forum Seminar, organized by the Ministry of Defense, Galaxy, Chinzan-so, Tokyo, March 16, 2012. “Do Confidence Building Measures Really Address the Major Challenges to Maritime Security?,” Presentation to Joint Meeting of the 36th Australia Council for Security Cooperation in Asia and the Pacific (AUS CSCAP) Meeting and The Australian National University Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security (ANU-CEPS) Maritime Expert Networks Meeting, The Common Room, University House, The Australian National University, Canberra, March 22-23, 2012. “Sovereignty Disputes in the South China Sea: Diplomacy, Legal Regimes and Realpolitik,” Presentation to International Conference on Topical Regional Security Issues in East Asia, co-sponsored by the Faculty of Asian and African Studies and the Ho Chi Minh Institute, St. Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation, April 6-7, 2012. “From Aggressive Assertiveness to All Quiet on the East Sea Front: The South China Sea as an Issue in China-Vietnam Relations,” Presentation to Conference on The South China Sea and Asia Pacific in Transition: Exploring Options for Managing Disputes,” sponsored by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington, D.C., June 27-28, 2012.
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