South China Sea issue drags Sino-Australian ties into rough waters

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/20 11:08:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

I have witnessed the ups and downs of Sino-Australian relations over the past decades. Looking back, the past two years mark something of a turning point, if not a substantial change, which features deepening strategic mutual-misperception. Why?

From an Australian's point of view, the whole story may have started with the South China Sea and especially The Hague's ruling last year.

The Australian side thinks that China, as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), should abide by the international tribunal's ruling instead of refusing to join the case and subsequently ignore its ruling. Australia takes China's response to this as a touchstone of whether or not it is prepared to play by international rules.

Recently some senior officials in Australia accused China of not being a proper regional power, because China is not democratic.

To some extent, such remarks can be seen as ideological. But what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the Shangri-La Dialogue more closely represents the strategic thinking of the Australian government right now.

Australians lay so much emphasis on the South China Sea issue because they are uncertain about China's strategic intentions, especially over the past two years when China's comprehensive power has been escalating so fast, and its military presence in the region has been increasing so much.

As a "small" country with limited economic and military power, Australia needs continuing strategic reassurance from a bigger and more powerful China, including greater transparency about China's strategic intentions. The need for this kind of reassurance roots from our insecurity.

On the other hand, it is unhelpful that the Australian rhetoric on the South China Sea has elevated this issue to such singular prominence.

In the past year, Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Malaysia chose to negotiate with China on this issue thereby isolating Australia to some extent; Trump moderated Obama's seemingly more aggressive approach; and China itself is also readjusting.

The reality is that this is a sovereignty issue for China, as it is with some other Southeast Asian states. In such circumstances, governments cannot readily make major concessions in the near term. When appealing to international law on this issue, it is important to remember that the US itself is not a signatory to the UNCLOS.

The second reason is that both sides are in a period of strategic repositioning. US strength is relatively declining, and China's rise is self-evident. There have been various debates within Australia about how the country should position itself in this changing international landscape.

The third factor comes from the decision-making body of Australia. In recent years, the foreign ministry of Australia is turning to an implementation body, giving way to the prime minister's office, security and defense agencies and some think tanks.

Taking the Belt and Road initiative as an example, there are debates inside Australia's decision-making system over the best approach.

In the meantime, China should be more cautious about its growing presence in Australia. Take the student protesters against "Tibet independence" forces for example. The Chinese people should understand the plurality of Australian society.

The past two years may be a watershed in the history of Sino-Australian relations with complicated reasons.

The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Qu Xiangyu based on an interview with Geoff Raby, former Australian ambassador to China and now chairman of Geoff Raby & Associates, a Beijing-based advisory firm.


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