The ongoing disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) have been regarded as one of the most enduring and complicated regional conflicts in the Asia-Pacific. The disputes involve China along with several states in the region and encompass issues such as overlapping territorial claims and access to critical resources like energy and fisheries. Within this turbulent environment, India has been expanding its influence through implementing its Look East Policy (LEP). This has not been taken well by China, who has for years tried to curb New Delhi’s growing involvement in the SCS. India’s decision to involve itself in such a complex environment, even at the risk of provoking its giant neighbor, demonstrates the significance it places on the region and its sea lanes.
The SCS is located in a region of great strategic interest for India. Geographically, it connects the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea via the Malacca Straits, which is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. This important waterway serves as a vital economic artery for the South Asian state. Up to 97 percent of India’s total international trade volume is sea-borne, half of which, passes through the straits. In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) constitutes one of India’s largest trade partners, with total trade valued at $71 billion in 2016/2017.
Energy is another component of India’s interest in the SCS. In 2015, India became the third largest oil consumer in the world, with industry experts predicting that its energy consumption would continue to grow by 4.2 percent annually. Already importing up to 80 percent of its total oil requirements, India will likely need to secure new energy sources as domestic demand rises. The potential energy deposits in the SCS have thus drawn New Delhi’s attention. In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)estimated the region to contain up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in reserves. As such, India has been continually involved in offshore energy development projects in the SCS since the early 1990s, bidding for new oil and gas blocks and conducting oil exploration in the region.
The region’s economic importance translates into national security interests for New Delhi. With half of its maritime trade passing through the Malacca Straits, any instability in the SCS would adversely affect the shipping lanes and have a knock-on effect on India’s economy. Similarly, should a potentially hostile power come to control this region, it could threaten India’s access to this vital waterway. New Delhi’s involvement in the SCS thus, focuses on three objectives. First, to ensure peace and stability in the region and keep the vital sea lanes open; second, to maintain cordial relations with regional powers; and third, to ensure that no potentially aggressive external power comes to dominate the region.
Through the LEP, New Delhi has pursued these objectives by seeking to intensify its engagement with ASEAN states. Besides increased economic engagement, strategic cooperation was expanded through joint naval exercises, generous lines of credit, military training, and sales of military hardware with regional states. Moreover, the enhanced presence of Indian military assets in the area not only served to protect the sea lanes, but also provided ‘domain awareness’ of potential regional developments.
Engagement also served to counter China’s growing influence in the region. India’s relationship with its giant neighbor has been difficult and tenuous. Both sides have been embroiled in a long, ongoing border dispute that resulted in a war in 1962 and till today remains a source of tension that has resulted in occasional crises. This has perpetuated the sense of suspicion and mistrust between the two. As the Doklam standoff in 2017 shows, conflict between the two sides remains a very real prospect. Hence, from New Delhi’s perspective, it is imperative that the SCS does not turn into a ‘Chinese lake.’
Managing the region’s competing territorial disputes has required shrewd diplomatic awareness and delicate balancing from India. On one hand, the South Asian state wants to maintain friendly relations with the various SCS claimants; on the other, it has to avoid excessively provoking its Chinese neighbor. In New Delhi’s view, while activities such as energy exploration and weapon sales to the region would incur Beijing’s disapproval, such ventures are unlikely to instigate anything more than a verbal response from the Chinese. Taking a stand on the territorial disputes is another matter. China has repeatedly described the SCS as a “core interest”, indicating its willingness to use force to protect its claims. Thus, India’s stand on the issue has been one of deliberate ambiguity – not favoring any one side, but instead advocating freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On the South China Sea Arbitration ruling in 2016, India, which had not taken sides in the dispute, urged all parties to respect and uphold the verdict of the UNCLOS-based tribunal.
Recent developments in the SCS, however, have been a source of concern for New Delhi. China, which lays claim to 85 percent of the contested region, has been reclaiming and militarizing features in its possession. Between 2013 and 2016, Chinawas reported to have reclaimed seven islands and built military installations including airfields, radar systems and missile bases on its reclaimed possessions in the area. Furthermore, Chinese vessels in the area have been known to act aggressively, harassing and intimidating vessels of other nations into steering clear of islands they claim. In response, other SCS claimants have also begun augmenting their deterrence capabilities on their islands with infrastructure such as coastal defenses, airfields and surveillance systems. Rather than peace, such actions have generated tension and destabilized the region.
Even the United States (US), once a strong proponent for ‘freedom of navigation’ in the region, has been of little help to India. During his first year in office, President Trump failed to show any willingness to challenge Beijing over its behavior in the SCS. The new administration seemed to lack a clear policy towards the SCS, choosing to focus its attention instead on North Korea. More recently however, there are signs that change may be on the horizon. In late 2017, the once dormant Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a defense partnership involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia – made a sudden comeback, indicating the growing unease over China’s rise. The recently unveiled U.S. military strategy also indicates a shift in focus back towards China and Russia. While it is too early to tell how well this plan will be carried out under this administration, the U.S. is likely to seek closer ties with India as a counterweight to China’s regional dominance. Furthermore, it may also signal Washington’s renewed interest to check Beijing’s behavior in the SCS.
What does the future hold for the SCS? New Delhi’s decision to recently host all ten ASEAN heads of state shows its intention to buckle down on its policy of strengthening ties with the region. Beijing’s policy in the SCS also seems unlikely to change. It has already swung the opinion of states like Malaysia and the Philippines, who have since softened their stances, and chosen to focus on cooperation with the Asian giant. With or without the U.S., India will have to continue to strengthen its ties with the region and play a part in managing its turbulent waters.
Byron Chong is a Research Assistant at the Centre on Asia & Globalisation in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He graduated from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies with a Masters in Strategic Studies. His research interests focus on Sino-Indian relations and international security in Asia.
The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.
Featured Image: As part of the ongoing sea trials, the first indigenously built, Scorpene class submarine Kalvari undertook it’s first torpedo firing on 26 May 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)
By Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke and Admiral Dr. Jayanath Colombage
The Indian Ocean
The economic, strategic, and ultimately political importance of the Indian Ocean has been recognized for centuries. Mariners from Arabia, East Asia, and the Pacific, while plying their trade, studied weather patterns in the Indian Ocean and explored and traversed it regularly, laying the foundation of the rules of orderly maritime conduct. Intrepid mariners from Europe ventured through the Indian Ocean to the furthest reaches of East Asia and the Pacific in search of spices, as well as land and treasure to be acquired for their patrons, adding to the corpus of rules and practices that would become, over time, the Law of the Sea.
Today, the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean are home to some 2.7 billion people, or some 35 percent of the world’s population. The Indian Ocean provides vital access to the powerful economies of South Asia, East, and Southeast Asia, including supplies of energy from countries of the Persian Gulf and Africa. Some 70 percent of world trade and 50 percent of crude oil reaches their destinations through the Indian Ocean. More than 80 percent of the world’s maritime trade in crude oil passes through the chokepoints of the Indian Ocean, with 40 percent passing through the Strait of Hormuz, 8 percent via the Bab el-Mandeb, and 35 percent through the Straits of Malacca.
Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean
Sri Lanka’s geographically central location and its proximity to the major sea routes traversing the Indian Ocean may have inspired the nation’s political leaders to be proactive in initiating, from time to time, imaginative and broadly conservationist measures to protect and preserve this Ocean’s resources, as well as their concern that peace, order, and good governance be maintained among the communities that surround it to promote their well-being.
Thus, in 1971, at the initiative of Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, later joined by the President of Tanzania, the United Nations General Assembly declared:
“The Indian Ocean, within limits to be determined together with the air space above and the ocean floor subjacent thereto … designated for all time as a Zone of Peace.” (A/RES/2832 (XXVI)
Adopted by the General Assembly at its 26th Session by a vote of 61 in favor and none against, but with some 55 abstentions, the Declaration called on the “great Powers” (a) to halt further escalation and expansion of their “military presence” in the Indian Ocean, and (b) to remove from the Indian Ocean all fixed elements of their rivalry, such as military bases, installations and logistical supply facilities, and even warships and aircraft, to the extent that they were intended to maintain a “military presence” in the area, and were not merely in transit on their lawful occasions. Implementation of the Declaration was to be through conclusion of an international agreement that would include (1) prohibition of the use of ships and aircraft against the littoral and hinterland States of the Indian Ocean in contravention of the U.N. Charter; and (2) guarantee the right of ships and aircraft of all nations, whether military or other, “free and unimpeded” use of the Indian Ocean and its airspace in accordance with international law. Efforts to implement the Declaration by its proponents supported by the Non-Aligned Group and some other States continued within the U.N. General Assembly until by the close of the Twentieth Century. Since then, such efforts seemed to have lost all momentum.
While the “great power rivalry” that caused concern in the 1970s might have receded, new developments of concern and the prevalence of illegal and criminal activity in the Indian Ocean moved President Maithripala Sirisena, when addressing the States of the Indian Ocean Rim at the Group’s Twentieth Anniversary Meeting in Jakarta in March 2017, to call on them to work out a stable legal framework that would put an end to trafficking of illicit drugs and other criminal activity in the Indian Ocean, while maintaining freedom of navigation in accordance with international law.
In February 2017, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an address at Deakin University in Australia, expressed concern that the post-Cold War multi-polar world had brought about “A massive transition of economic and military power to Asia within the Indian Ocean and the Pacific” and he concluded that, “the global political order, which produced the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is radically different from the current global dynamics…” He warned that “current agreement ambiguities could generate global economic disruption,” and said “The ideal solution for the Indian Ocean is for all parties to agree on a code of conduct for military vessels traversing the Indian Ocean” and that “the Code on the Freedom of Navigation in the Indian Ocean must include an effective and realistic mechanism on dispute resolution…” He concluded saying “any agreement, also needed to recognize the escalation in human smuggling, illicit drug trafficking and the relatively new phenomenon of maritime terrorism.”
The need to keep the vital sea lanes open for all and to maintain peace and stability in the Indian Ocean Region, and ensure the right of all states to the freedom of navigation and overflight, was expressed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe once again at the 2nd Indian Ocean Conference held in Colombo in September 2017.
Meanwhile, at the same event, the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said “The Indian Ocean is prone to non-traditional security threats like piracy, smuggling, maritime terrorism, illegal fishing, and trafficking of humans and narcotics. We realize that to effectively combat transnational security challenges across the Indian Ocean, including those posed by non-state actors, it is important to develop a security architecture that strengthens the culture of cooperation and collective action.”
While waiting for further developments in the South China Sea negotiations between the ASEAN and China, as well as negotiations between the U.S and China relating to safety in the air and maritime encounters that could serve as inspiration to the 21 States currently members of IORA, the Pathfinder Foundation offers herewith a preliminary draft of a Code of Conduct aimed at organizing cooperative efforts to take action to meet security challenges in the Indian Ocean, including those posed by non-state actors. The draft which, where appropriate, follows the structure of Codes of Conduct designed for East Africa (Djibouti Code of Conduct) and West Africa (Yaoundé Code of Conduct) concluded under the auspices of IMO, is offered for review and comment.
A “Code of Conduct,” as commonly conceived, is not a legally binding document, but would prescribe rules to be observed in organizing cooperation in the pursuit of a common set of objectives. It should be noted that, in contrast, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea which is legally binding on States Parties to it, include the States participating in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). The Pathfinder Foundation commenced the New Year by inaugurating its Centre for the Law of the Sea (CLS) in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The draft Code of Conduct for the Indian Ocean was created to assist consideration of the idea by the 21 littoral States members of the ‘Indian Ocean Rim Association’ (IORA).
Through an inclusive process and cooperative engagement, a Code of Conduct may be devised and disseminated to further enhance peace and prosperity in the Indian Ocean.
A graduate in History and post graduate in International Relations (The Hague), Bernard Goonetilleke spent nearly four decades as an officer of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service. He took over the post of chairmanship of Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (SLITHM) in August 2008 and later appointed as Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) with effect from November and December 2008, respectively until February 2010. His career as a Foreign Service officer began in 1970 and has included postings to Sri Lanka diplomatic missions in Kuala Lumpur, New York, Bangkok, Washington D.C., Geneva and Beijing. He held several positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs including Director General (Multilateral Affairs) (1997-2000) and ending as Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2003-2004). During his career, he served as Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in Geneva (1992-1997), during which period he was concurrently accredited to the Holy See and as Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Vienna. Later he served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (2000-2003), during which assignment he was concurrently accredited as Ambassador to the People’s Republic of Mongolia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He also served as Acting Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in New York (2004-2005) and ended his diplomatic career as Ambassador to the United States of America (2005-2008). Following the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement between the Government and the LTTE in 2002, he headed the Secretariat as Director General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) and functioned as one of the four members of the government negotiating team. Mr. Goonetilleke functions as Chairperson of the Pathfinder Foundation since 2010.
Admiral (Dr.) Jayanath Colombage is a former chief of Sri Lanka navy who retired after an active service of 37 years as a four-star Admiral. He is a highly decorated officer for gallantry and distinguished service. He is a graduate of Defence Services Staff College in India and Royal College of Defence Studies, UK. He holds a PhD from General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. He also holds MSc on defence and strategic studies from Madras university and MA on International Studies from Kings college, London. He is a visiting lecturer at the University of Colombo, Defence Services Command and Staff college (Sri Lanka), Kotelawala Defence University, Bandaranaike Center for International Studies and Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute. He was the former Chairman of Sri Lanka Shipping Corporation and an adviser to the President of Sri Lanka on maritime affairs. He is a Fellow of Nautical Institute, London UK. Admiral Colombage is currently the Director of the Centre for Indo- Lanka Initiatives of the Pathfinder Foundation. He is also a member of the Advisory council of the ‘Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka.’ And a Guest Professor at Sichuan University in China.
Featured Image: 1941 map of Indian Ocean (National Geographic)
On 4 September 2017, an Australian naval task group departed from Sydney and embarked on a unique deployment called Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 to participate in a series of key naval exercises with a variety of partners in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Pacific – i.e. the Indo-Pacific. Its commander, Jonathan Earley, oversaw six ships and over 1300 personnel, making it the largest coordinated task group from Australia to deploy to the region since the early 1980s.
The immediate purposes of the exercise were given by the Australian Department of Defence as two-fold; namely soft security “focused on demonstrating the ADF’s Humanitarian and Disaster Relief regional response capability, as well as hard security “further supporting security and stability in Australia’s near region.” The latter was described as demonstrating “high-end military capabilities such as anti-submarine warfare.” Geopolitically this reflected what the Defence Minister Marise Payne called “heightened interests in the Indo-Pacific” for Australia, with frequently recurring China-related considerations.
It was revealing that Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017was explained by the Australian Department of Defenceas enhancing military cooperation with some of Australia’s “key regional partners”; specifically named as Brunei, Cambodia, the Federated States of Micronesia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Timor-Leste. Politically the absence of China as a partner was deliberate but accurate, and in which the range of other countries represented a degree of tacit external balancing on the part of Australia.
The naval group was led by HMAS Adelaide, Australia’s largest flagship, commissioned in December 2015. HMAS Adelaide was joined at various moments by HMAS Darwin (guided missile frigate), HMAS Melbourne (guided missile frigate), HMAS Parramatta (anti-submarine/anti-aircraft frigate), HMAS Toowoomba (anti-submarine/anti-aircraft frigate), and HMAS Sirius (replenishment ship). These units highlighted Australia’s unique Indo-Pacific positioning given it faces both oceans, as units from Fleet Base East at Sydney (HMAS Adelaide, HMAS Darwin, HMAS Melbourne, and HMAS Parramatta) and from Fleet Base West at Perth (HMAS Toowoomba and HMAS Sirius) participated.
The task force’s first engagement activity announced on 8 September was for HMAS Adelaide to conduct aviation training with USS Bonhomme Richard, a large American amphibious assault ship, on the east coast of Australia. HMAS Adelaide then completed further amphibious landing craft and aviation training with the Republic of Singapore’s amphibious ship, RSS Resolution while deployed further up the east coast of Australia off the coast of Townsville.
The first external port call was carried out on 20 September as HMAS Adelaide, HMAS Darwin, and HMAS Toowoomba steamed into Dili, the capital of East Timor, to deliver a portable hospital ahead of Exercise Hari’i Hamutuk. This engineering exercise involves Australian, Japan, U.S., and East Timor’s military forces working side-by-side to build skills and support East Timor’s development. This set the seal nicely on their reconciliation over claims in the Timor Sea, achieved when the two sides reached agreement at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
HMAS Parramatta proceeded northward to conduct joint patrols from 22-26 September with the Philippine Navy in the Sulu Sea, as part of the annual Lumbas exercises running since 2007. HMAS Parramatta sailed eastwards to Palau for a three-day stop from 22-24 September. Significantly Palau recognizes Taiwan (ROC) rather than Beijing (PRC) as the legitimate government of mainland China. A further extension saw HMAS Parramatta visit Yap on 27 September. Its stay at Yap included cross-deck training with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) Patrol Boat FSS Independence, an Australian-gifted Pacific-class Patrol Boat. Both stops showed Australian naval outreach into the so-called “second island chain” (dier daolian) which Chinese naval strategy has long shown interest in penetrating, as with deployments of underwater survey vessels around the Caroline Islands in August 2017.
Meanwhile, HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Toowoomba paid a port call to Jakarta from 24-26 September. It was significant that this brought to an end a previous period of coolness between the two governments, at a time when Indonesia was becoming more assertive in its own claims over maritime waters in the South China Sea, renaming waters around the Natuna archipelago (which also fall within China’s 9-dash line) as the North Natuna Sea.
HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Parramatta then rendezvoused at the Malaysian port of Port Klang from 1-5 October to carry out joint Humanitarian and Disaster Relief exercises and demonstrations on 4 October. Relations with Malaysia have remained strong, anchored through the Australian presence at Butterworth Airbase under the Five Power Defence Agreement (5PDFA) and the bilateral 25-year old joint defense program between Australia and Malaysia.
Australian naval units then retraced their steps and entered the South China Sea. These waters are mostly claimed by China within its 9-dash line, which includes the Spratly Islands (disputed in varying degrees with Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines and Vietnam) and with Beijing in control of the Paracels (disputed with Vietnam) since 1974. China viewed the arrival of the Australian Navy in the South China Sea with some unease, with the state media warning that the “Australian fleet must be wary of meddling in South China sea affairs” (Global Times, 24 September).
Having paid then a friendly port call to the small, oil-rich state of Brunei from 30 September to 2 October, HMAS Melbourne then moved up with HMAS Parramatta to Japan, where they arrived on 9 October to take part in the bilateral Nichi Gou Trident exercise with the Japanese Navy off the coast of Tokyo. The ships practiced anti-submarine warfare, ship handling, aviation operations, and surface gunnery. This exercise has been alternatively hosted between Australia and Japan since 2009. Security links with Japan have been considerably strengthened during the last decade since the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation was signed in March 2007.
Simultaneously, further deployment into the Indian Ocean was carried out by HMAS Toowoomba which carried out a four-day goodwill visit to Port Blair from 12-15 October. Port Blair is the key archipelago possession of India dominating the Straits of Malacca and the Bay of Bengal, and the site for India’s front-line Andaman and Nicobar Command. Various joint exercises were carried out between the Indian Navy and Australian Navy. This reinforced the strengthening naval links between Australia and India, flagged up in the Framework for Security Cooperation signed in November 2014, and subsequently demonstrated with their bilateral AUSINDEX exercises in June 2017 off the western coast of Australia and in September 2015 in the Bay of Bengal.
Meanwhile, HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Darwin proceeded to the Philippines for a further goodwill visit from 10-15 October. Maritime links have been further strengthened of late with the donation of two Balikpapan-class heavy landing crafts by Canberra in 2015, and nominal-rate sale of three more in 2016. Australia’s concerns had been on show in Defense Secretary Marise Payne’s discussions in Manila on 11 September. These have been partly to bolster the Philippines against ISIS infiltration into the Muslim-inhabited southern province of Mindanao, but also to bolster the Philippines’ maritime capacity in the South China Seas against a rising China. With regard to the South China Sea, Australia has called for China to comply with the findings of the UNCLOS tribunal in July 2016, in the case brought by the Philippines, which rejected Chinese claims in the South China Seas.
HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Darwin then re-crossed the South China Sea to pay a port call at Singapore on 23 October. This maintains the regular appearance of Australian military forces at Singapore, which have been an ongoing feature of the 5 Power Defence Forces Agreement (5PDFA). While HMAS Darwin returned to Darwin, HMAS Adelaide paid a friendly port call at Papua New Guinea’s main port of Port Moresby on 11 November. Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbour, a former colony, and (like East Timor) the subject of Chinese economic blandishments.
HMAS Melbourne and Parramatta and a P-8A submarine hunter aircraft moved across from Japan to the Korean peninsula for an extended stay from 27 October – 6 November. This included their participation in the biannual Exercise Haedoli Wallaby, initiated in 2012, which focuses on anti-submarine drills with the South Korean Navy. This also reflected a reiteration of Australian readiness to deploy forces into Northeast Asia amid heightened tensions surrounding North Korean nuclear missile advancements. Naval logic given by the Task Group commander, Jonathan Earley was that “as two regional middle powers that share common democratic values as well as security interests, Haedoli Wallaby is an important activity for Australia and the ROK.” Wider trilateral activities were shown with the Melbourne and the Parramatta then carrying out anti-missile drills with U.S. and South Korean destroyers in the East China Sea on 6-7 November.
Australia’s Strategic Proclamations as Context
The general context for the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment was the explicit focus on the “Indo-Pacific” as Australia’s strategic frame of reference stressed in the Defence White Papers of 2013 and 2016, and rising concerns about China’s growing maritime presence.
This strategic context for the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment was elaborated at length by the Defence Minister Marise Payne at the Seapower Conference in Sydney on 3 October. Payne’s speech contained strong messaging on Australian assets, deployment, and the Indo-Pacific focus of Australian defense strategy.
With regard to assets, Payne announced and welcomed “the most ambitious upgrade of our naval fleet in Australia since the Second World War” to create “a regional superior future naval force being built in Australia which will include submarines, frigates, and a fleet of offshore patrol vessels.” She also noted her own pleasure in commissioning Australia’s “largest warship” (HMAS Adelaide, commissioned on 4 December 2015) and “most powerful” air warfare destroyer (HMAS Hobart, commissioned on 23 September 2017). Australia’s second air warfare destroyer, Brisbane, began sea trials off the coast of southern Australia in late November 2017. This current naval buildup could be seen as demonstrating external balancing, but of course this raises the question of external balancing against whom – to which the unstated answer is China.
With regard to deployments, Payne enthused on decisive opportunities for a fifth generation navy:
“Altogether these and those future capabilities will transform the Australian fleet into a fully operational, fifth generation navy. The RAN will be able to deploy task groups equipped with a wide range of capabilities, from high-end war fighting to responsive and agile humanitarian assistance … To envisage that future, high-end war fighting to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, we also only need to look at the ADF’s Joint Task Group Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 that’s currently underway in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Finally, the whole Indo-Pacific nature of Australian maritime strategy was stressed:
“From the Malacca, the Sunda and Lombok Straits to the South and East China Seas, many of the most vital areas of globalisation and sources of geopolitical challenge are in our backyard. If the twenty-first century will be the Asian Century, then it will also be the Maritime Century. Just as surely as the balance of global economic and military weight is shifting in the Indo-Pacific, so too is it focused on the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. With established and emerging maritime powers across the region rapidly expanding their naval capabilities, the waters to Australia’s north are set to teem with naval platforms, the numbers and the strength of which has never been seen before […] In a crowded and contested Indo-Pacific maritime sphere, Australia must present a credible deterrent strategy, and to do our part in contributing to the peace, stability and security, and to good order at sea […] Our naval capabilities will therefore be integral […] to the preservation of the rules-based global order, and safeguarding peace in the maritime Indo-Pacific.”
China was not specifically mentioned but was the unstated reason for much of these Indo-Pacific challenges that Australia felt it had to respond to, with its behavior in the South China Sea frequently the subject of the strictures on maintaining a “rules based” order.
The South China Sea issue was on public view at the Australia-U.S.-Japan trilateral strategic dialogue (TSD) meeting on 7 August 2017 where Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joined her Japanese and U.S. counterparts in expressing “serious concerns” over “coercive” actions and reclamation projects being carried out and urged China to accept the ruling against it by the UNCLOS tribunal. Finally they announced their intentions to keep deploying in the South China Sea, into what they considered were international waters. In June 2017, Australia had already joined Japan, Canada, and the United States for two days of military exercises in the South China Sea.
As Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, Australia’s Chief of Naval Staff, noted in his speech on “Law of the Sea Convention in the Asia Pacific Region: Threats, challenges and opportunities,” despite “the increasingly aggressive actions taken by some nations to assert their claims over disputed maritime boundaries …[…] the Navy will continue to exercise our rights under international law to freedom of navigation and overflight.” Australian commentators were quick to point out its significance. In effect China was in mind as a threat and challenge. Although Australia has not taken a formal position on rival claims on South China Sea waters, it had strongly criticized Chinese reclamation projects and military buildups in the South China Sea, hence Global Time articles like “South China Sea issue drags Sino-Australian ties into rough waters” (20 June 2017).
Even as Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 units ploughed across the Western Pacific, Australia officials joined their U.S., Japan, and Indian counterparts on 12 November in a revived Quad format on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit. Australian concerns, shared with its partners, were clearly expressed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT): “upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and respect for international law, freedom of navigation […] and upholding maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.” The official Chinese response at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was minimal, “we hope that such relations would not target a third party” (14 November), followed by sharper comments in the state media on Australian participation being unwise (Global Times, “Australia rejoining Quad will not advance regional prosperity, unity, 15 November). The so-called Quad had emerged in 2007 with meetings between officials on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, with Australia joining in the Malabar exercises held in the Bay of Bengal by India, Japan, and the U.S. Australia subsequently withdrew from that format, though continuing to strengthen bilateral and trilateral naval links with these other three partners. This renewed Quad setting is likely to see Australia rejoin the Malabar exercises being held in 2018.
It was no surprise that this Indo-Pacific setting was reinforced with the Foreign Policy White Paper released on 23 November with its listing of “Indo-Pacific partnerships” in which “the Indo–Pacific democracies of Japan, Indonesia, India, and the Republic of Korea are of first order importance to Australia” as “major partners.” China’s absence from this listing of Indo-Pacific partners was revealing. Balancing considerations were tacitly acknowledged in the White Paper:
“To support a balance in the Indo–Pacific favourable to our interests and promote an open, inclusive, and rules-based region, Australia will also work more closely with the region’s major democracies, bilaterally and in small groupings. In addition to the United States, our relations with Japan, Indonesia, India, and the Republic of [South] Korea are central to this agenda.”
China was again absent from this listing, which was no surprise given how the White Paper noted that “Australia is particularly concerned about the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities. Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes.” In China this was immediately rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as “irresponsible remarks on the South China Sea issue. We are gravely concerned about this…” and also in the state media (Global Times, “China slams Australian White Paper remarks on South China Sea,” 23 November). This explains the extreme sensitivity China had shown over the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment into the South China Sea.
Consequently 2017 ended by palpable Australia-China maritime friction, when China’s Ministry of Defense gave details of discussions between China’s Navy commander Shen Jinlong and his Australian counterpart Vice Admiral Tim Barrett. The Chinese statement said that “in the last year, the Australian military’s series of actions in the South China Sea have run counter to the general trend of peace and stability. This does not accord with … forward steps in cooperation in all areas between the two countries.” In retrospect Australia’s maritime strategy shows itself to be primarily Indo-Pacific oriented, with its increasing concerns over China generating a response of external balancing through naval exercises and cooperation with India, Japan, the U.S., and a multitude of other partners, and with an increasing focus on restraining China in the South China Sea. China has been upset.
David Scott is an independent analyst on Indo-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer and a regular ongoing presenter at the NATO Defence College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tallinn since 2017. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: HMAS Adelaide sails the Timor Sea to deliver a mobile hospital to Dili, Timor Leste, as part of a multi-national Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief exercise. (Australian Ministry of Defence photo by LSIS Peter Thompson)
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By Dmitry Filipoff
Last week CIMSEC published articles analyzing China’s evolving defense and foreign policy, including sea power’s role in China’s strategic ambitions and related lessons from history, maritime strategy for the Indian Ocean, counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., and major pronouncements on military modernization made by Xi Jinping at the 19th Party Congress. We thank our authors for their excellent contributions, listed below.
“Since the beginning of the 21st century the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has steadily developed into a blue-water force able to rely on an ever increasing amount of modern equipment and platforms. This has been the result of years of intense effort on the part of naval planners in support of a more-forward oriented Chinese foreign and security policy.”
“In expanding naval operations from the South China Sea and Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, China is pursuing a “two-ocean” (战略, liang ge haiyang) strategy. This is the manifestation of China’s new strategy of “far-seas operations” (远海作战, yuanhai zuozhan) endorsed since the mid-2000s, to be achieved through deployment and berthing facilities across the Indo-Pacific, in part to meet energy security imperatives and thereby achieve “far seas protection” (远海护卫, yuanhai huwei) and power projection by the Chinese Navy.”
“But it’s not only about statements, the building of a mighty naval force and the emergence of China as a first-class maritime power can be identified as a fundamental indication of her attempts to implement such ambitions. A mighty naval force (a blue water navy) that can provide homeland security, ensure sovereign rights, contest national claims, and secure Chinese interests worldwide (including safeguarding the interests of her allies) constitutes a necessary condition for a world leader.”
“The opening of the Chinese military base in Djibouti on August 1st is a landmark event; China finally has its first overseas military outpost. The parallel of similar activities undertaken by the Germans in China at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is noteworthy for offering lessons on the relationship between force structure, maritime strategy, and overseas basing.”
“It is past time to recognize that CT cooperation is a remote possibility for the United States and China. Such a realization does not undermine the prospects of cooperation in other areas, nor ignore the threats violent extremists pose to China and its citizens. Discussions of CT simply exist too near the orbit of complex issues in the bilateral relationship that neither party is willing to jettison.”
“Frankly speaking, no particular new idea related to the defense policy was disclosed by Xi in this report except two deadlines of force building. However, it is still important for political observers and military analysts to read the above contents for understanding the direction and goals of Chinese military policy.”
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
Featured Image: Troops train for a military parade in Beijing. (Reuters/ Damir Sagolj)