High stakes for Australia in limiting China’s South China Sea incursions


A structure built by China in one of the islands in the Spratlys: China’s island building has alarmed its neighbours. Photo: Reuters

Rising tensions in the South China Sea are not simply driven by disputes over reefs, hydrocarbon resources and fisheries. China is seeking to exercise greater control over the waters and airspace in ways that pose threats to all nations  that have interests in preserving freedom of navigation, international law and norms, unimpeded lawful commerce, and peace and stability in the South China Sea. Risk-averse strategies to deter destabilising Chinese actions are not having much effect. Australia should join the US to implement a cost imposition strategy aimed at changing China’s risk/benefit calculus and thus its behaviour.

China’s South China Sea gambit is fundamentally different from the challenge posed by its establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The AIIB presents a potential threat to global economic governance but it does not endanger peace and stability or violate international law. Actions taken by China in the South China Sea are destabilising and in some cases are  in breach of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.

Chinese leaders appear to believe that they can coerce their neighbours without paying a significant price.

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