Australia ‘increasingly likely to stand’ with US in South China Sea

South China Sea: Dozens in danger as ship sinks in storm

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Australia has been tipped to stand alongside the US in its ongoing dispute with Beijing over Taiwan’s sovereignty as its government hatches plans to cut costs on some defence projects, a professor told The nation’s deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, spoke this week about how Australia “doesn’t have limitless resources”, and would be axing some defence projects in order to “maximise Australia’s capability”. He pinpointed the ongoing dispute over the hotly contested South China Sea, which is a main trading pathway for Australia to Asia, as one place where resources would continue to be channelled, describing the stretch of water as “critically important to our national interest”.

He outlined the “significant presence” Australia had for decades in the region, vowing to “continue to assert the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in that body of water as we do around the world”.

The politician did, however, warn that the unfolding political challenges faced between China and the US would likely have a “huge impact” on Australia.

US-China relations have become increasingly fraught in the past years, with Washington backing Beijing’s neighbour Taiwan in its claims to sovereignty in the waters. China, however, continues to see Taiwan as a breakaway province it will one day be reunited with.

It has led to continued shows of military strength by the world’s biggest superpowers, with the nations regularly flexing their muscles with naval exercises in the South China Sea.

And for Dr Bec Strating — associate professor in politics and international relations at Australia’s La Trobe University — if needed, Australia would show its support for Washington and Taiwan.

Speaking to, the professor said: “It seems increasingly likely that Australia would stand with the US in a dispute involving Taiwan, but Australian governments attempt to maintain ambiguity about this.

“Former Defence Minister Peter Dutton said it was inconceivable that Australia would not join the US in a dispute around Taiwan, but the real questions are: in what ways would Australia seek to contribute, what would the US expect from Australia, and would their plans for Australia’s alignment be aligned [with those of the US]? These questions don’t seem to have a clear answer.”

Dr Strating also examined how Australia and the US had already reacted to China’s attempts at building up their presence in the region as conflict becomes a possibility.

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‘Make China think twice’

As much as possible “making China think twice” before carrying out plans in the region remains necessary, US Rear Admiral Michael Studeman told USNI News, describing Beijing’s efforts as “something we need to take very seriously”.

In recent months, Rear Adm. Studeman noted, China had upped its probes of Taiwan’s air defences, sending more warships to the region in a bid to warn off the US and its allies.

And Dr Strating observed that two allies had reacted already to China’s ploy, with Canberra and Washington “expanding their operational presence by warships transiting legally through the South China Sea, joint military exercises in the region, increasing diplomatic efforts with maritime Southeast Asian states and engaging in legal and public diplomacy — that is, making public their position on the illegality of China’s claims to historic rights within the nine-dash line through official statements”.

She continued: “The US-Biden administration has also outlined a plan for ‘integrated deterrence’ in its Indo-Pacific strategy, which is essentially a plan to work more with partners and allies to constrain the growing power and influence of China more generally. AUKUS could be taken as an example of integrated deterrence, although this is still a nebulous concept.

“The US continues to do freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), and while other states including Australia have been reluctant to engage in this style of operation, naval ships from regional and extra-regional countries like Europe and Canada are increasing their presence in the region.”

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‘Effects on Australia are inevitable’

The overwhelming concern for Australia is trade, and particularly its reliance on liquid fuels which are imported via shipping routes in the South China Sea. According to research published in The Guardian, across the past decades, the dependency had risen steeply, with Australia now importing 90 percent of its refined fuels.

Any major conflict in the region, the data predicted, would threaten those refined fuel imports, which come from South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam.

In a piece jointly written by associate professor Richard Oloruntoba of Curtin University; professor Booi Kam of RMIT University; associate professor Hong-Oanh Nguyen of the University of Tasmania; Matthew Warren, director of the Centre for Cyber Security Research and Innovation at RMIT University; prof Prem Chhetri of RMIT University; and associate professor Vinh Thai of RMIT University last year, the researchers said: “Even if the routes between these countries and Australia do not pass through the South China Sea, most of the crude oil these countries import to produce that refined fuel does.”

They added: “Any prolonged closure of the South China Sea will force tankers to take alternative routes. With longer routes will come higher freight costs and tanker shortages. Flow-on effects to Australia are inevitable.”

All-out conflict has been an underlying concern for many observers, who fear tensions will one day boil to such a point that the only inevitable outcome will be war. Among those making this prediction was Georgetown University’s Professor Oriana Skylar Mastro, who outlined her concerns over an increased military presence in the region.

Speaking to the Council of Foreign Relations in 2021, she said: “I think there are some factors that show if China cannot achieve its goals, de facto control of the South China waters, it could escalate. The US could act more assertively, leading to aggression on the part of China.

“It’s possible that China will come to the conclusion that the diplomatic way of dealing with the situation isn’t working.

“Couple that with new power projection capabilities, military power for the first time… lastly, you could see China taking military action, such as seizing islands of kinetic action against US vessels in the South China Sea waters.”

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