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To Follow or to Change?
The time has come for Australia to rethink its role in the South China Sea
By Shi Yongming | NO.47 NOVEMBER 24, 2016

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang meets with his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull for a series of consultations on East Asian cooperation in Vientiane, capital of Laos, on September 8 (XINHUA)

The U.S. President-elect, Donald Trump, has apparently shown an isolationist inclination when speaking on foreign policy topics during his presidential campaign. Although it still remains unknown whether Trump will govern the nation the way he campaigned, his election triumph increases the possibility of a change from the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy adopted by the incumbent President Barack Obama in 2011.

Some U.S. allies which have fully cooperated in the rebalancing strategy are anxious about such a policy change occurring. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, despite previously expressing his support for Hillary Clinton and not expecting a Trump victory, immediately made a call to the president-elect, sending a congratulatory message on November 9. In the letter, Abe praised Trump for being "a very successful businessman with extraordinary talents" and stressed that "Japan and the United States are unwavering allies." Abe's underlying message is that he hopes Trump will not make any substantial adjustments to Obama's Pivot to Asia strategy, as the strategy serves the Japanese interest of containing China while simultaneously realizing its ambition of becoming a dominant power in the region.

However, what Trump's election victory may signal in terms of U.S. foreign policy has yet to be determined. Abe has to think twice before continuing to pursue his proactive policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Australia, the "southern anchor" in Obama's Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy, might have to rethink its foreign policy too. Will the country continue to support the U.S. rebalancing strategy or will it become more independent in its policymaking?

The role of Australia

Australia appears to be a firm supporter of the U.S. rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific. It has followed in the footsteps of the United States to interfere in the South China Sea, though neither country is a claimant in the disputes.

Even though the tension between China and the Philippines cooled in October, Australia has its own agenda. Its Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on November 1 after meeting Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu that they agreed to "explore options to increase maritime cooperation, and of course that would include coordinated activities in the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea."

Bishop's statement that any operation would be "in accordance with international law" is ironic, as Australia withdrew from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 14 years ago.

Australia should first consider whether its actions in relation to the Timor Sea dispute are in accordance with international law. The current borders in the Timor Sea were delimited between Australia and Indonesia in 1989. When Timor-Leste achieved independence from Indonesia in 2002, Australia announced its withdrawal from the UNCLOS. This was a preventative move to avoid the jurisdiction of international law and exclude all possibilities that Timor-Leste might seek a dispute settlement through international arbitration in the future.

Today, Australia occupies a large part of the disputed waters and refuses to negotiate with Timor-Leste, showing no respect for the UNCLOS. It exempts itself from the rules that apply to everyone in the region, making it the least qualified country to talk about rule of law on the South China Sea issue.

This September, Dennis C. Blair, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence and a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, paid a visit to Australia.

In a meeting with senior Australian officers, Blair encouraged Australia to take part in joint military exercises with U.S. forces in the South China Sea. In fact, Australia was a pivotal point for the Obama administration's Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy to ensure U.S. military dominance in the South China Sea. According to a military cooperation deal signed by the United States and Australia in 2014, U.S. marine troops in Darwin, north Australia, will increase from 1,200 to 2,500 by 2017.

The U.S.-Australia alliance was shaped during the World War II period when the latter was able to repel Japan with the former's military protection. After the war ended, Australia participated in the majority of overseas military operations led by the United States. It is hard for Australia not to be aligned with the United States on foreign policy. Some of its policymakers may believe that it is obliged to side with the United States to contain a potential emerging power in the region.

However, the Pivot to Asia has raised the risk of conflict in the South China Sea, which is not in line with the national interest of Australia. Today, China is the biggest trading partner of Australia, and it serves the best interests of both countries if they are able to maintain close economic and trade relations.

Visitors board the U.S. aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis during the open day of the RIMPAC 2016 multinational naval exercises in Hawaii on July 9. Nine naval ships from seven countries, including China, the United States, Australia and India, were showcased at the event (Xinhua)

A new order

Australia's policymakers have mulled over the role it should play in the post-Cold War Asia-Pacific region.

In the early 1990s, Australia adopted a strategy of Asian integration. Back then, it was active in promoting regional cooperation and integration in the Asia-Pacific. But as time passes, Australia has often identified itself as a member of the West and is predominantly a Caucasian country.

Over the past two decades, Australia has become closer to its Asian neighbors on economic and people-to-people exchanges. But mutual understanding between Australia and other Asian countries has not matched the pace of their economic ties.

In Australia, there was once a voice that wished to make the country a bridge linking the East to the West. But now, Australia is committed to following the United States. Not only the policymakers, but also foreign policy experts support the current hardline stance of the government.

The U.S.-dominated international order is bringing chaos to some parts of the world especially in the Middle East, which should be attributed to the neo-imperialist strategy that Washington has adopted. It remains to be seen in what direction Trump, with a strong campaign message of isolationism, will actually lead U.S. foreign policy. The post-Cold War experience has shown that hegemony is not going to bring peace to the world, and the time to build an international order based on equality and cooperation is coming. Australia is now caught at a crossroads of either following in the U.S. hegemonic footsteps or becoming the adhesive which can help bridge the East and West.

The author is an associate researcher on Asia-Pacific issues, China Institute of International Studies

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

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