“Australia Puts Southeast Asia at the Centre of Growing US-China Strategic Rivalry” by Ian Storey

2017/70, 30 November 2017

Australia’s recently released Foreign Policy White Paper situates Southeast Asia at the nexus of an increasingly “complex and contested” Indo-Pacific region where China’s rising power and influence is challenging America’s strategic dominance and putting the rules based order under strain.

The white paper describes Southeast Asia’s main security problem, the South China Sea dispute, as a “major fault line” in the regional order, and  expresses particular concern at the “unprecedented pace and scale” of China’s activities, especially the construction and militarization of seven artificial islands in the Spratlys. The paper implies that China’s assertiveness puts freedom of navigation at risk.

The policy paper calls for an end to land reclamation, construction activities and the use of artificial structures for military purposes, all the disputants to bring their claims into line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and for China and the Philippines to abide by the ruling issued by the Arbitral Tribunal on 12 July 2016.

To promote stability in the South China Sea, the white paper pledges that Australia will strengthen defence cooperation with Southeast Asia’s maritime states, especially capacity building support and maritime domain awareness. Australia will also highlight the importance of maritime security issues at ASEAN-led forums such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus.

The policy paper also states that Australia will continue to exercise its freedom of navigation and overflight rights in the region and conduct “cooperative activities with other countries consistent with international law”. This raises the possibility of the Royal Australian Navy conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) with the US Navy should the security situation in the South China Sea significantly deteriorate.

Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

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