South China Sea: listening is more than what we want to hear


It begins with a bit of a chuckle. “Almost a full front row here. Banner day,” chirps Marie Harf, spokeswoman for American diplomacy. Harf is presiding at the podium for what is a weekday ritual at the US State Department, a question-and-answer session for reporters that presents the official view of the world as seen through Washington’s eyes.

Harf has a large binder folder before her with “talking points” on events from here, there and everywhere. On this particular day last month – a little cooler than usual outside, but sticky and humid as Washington is prone to be this time of year – Harf responds to journalists’ queries on the strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the new thaw in US relations with Cuba, fighting in Ukraine, the nuclear talks with Iran, and plenty more besides.

Not until almost 50 minutes have passed, with time almost exhausted, is a question posed on China and the attempt to construct entirely new islands from what had been wave-washed rocky outcrops in the South China Sea.

The day before, CNN had broadcast footage from a US military spy plane buzzing near the artificial islands. Allowing the television crew on board was a clever propaganda ploy to publicly emphasise America’s displeasure at China’s efforts.

But for all the attention the dispute has gathered on this side of the world in recent weeks, amid grand talk of realigning power balances in Asia or a more immediate potential flashpoint for conflict over freedom of navigation, the China question isn’t quite yet at the forefront of most people’s minds in the United States – a point Australian political leaders should not forget.


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