Australia struggles for clarity on the South China Sea

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The Lowy Institute’s Richard McGregor has noted the absence of China discussion in Australia’s current election campaign, a state of affairs which prompted his colleague Sam Roggeveen to observe that “Bipartisanship on China is becoming a form of collusion”. Given that the Coalition seems to have decided against participating in a debate on foreign affairs, it is unlikely that the Australian electorate will learn anything more prior to Saturday 18 May when the polls open.

However, this is not to say that the Coalition and Labor have identical policies on, or approaches towards, relations with the People’s Republic of China. One crucial aspect of this is Australia’s response to China’s expansion and coercion in the South China Sea. In mid-2016 the former Shadow Defence Minister, Stephen Conroy, said that Australia would have “failed the test” if it did not stand up to Chinese “bullying” in the South China Sea. He advocated authorising the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) to conduct a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed features there. In October 2016, the current Shadow Defence Minister – Conroy’s successor, Richard Marles – echoed this suggestion, saying that the RAN should be “fully authorised” to conduct such FONOPs.

The then-foreign minister, Julie Bishop, was quick to criticise Labor’s pro-FONOP position in the House of Representatives. She claimed that Marles had “decided that Australia should escalate tensions” by conducting FONOPs, “something that Australia has not ever done before”. Bishop implicitly – but clearly – suggested that the Coalition’s policy was not to conduct such FONOPs: Canberra instead should “be seeking to de-escalate tensions … Australia should not take sides, and we should continue to urge … peaceful negotiations”. This is not a formal Coalition policy but given Bishop’s words and the fact that Australia has not yet conducted a FONOP, any decision to do so would be a departure from the status quo. Under these circumstances, it is fair to say that the Coalition has an implicit, but reasonably clear, policy of not conducting FONOPs.

https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/australia-struggles-clarity-south-china-sea

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