The South and East China seas have long been a source of dispute between China and surrounding nations, including Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. Disputes on territory have been ongoing since as far back as the late nineteenth century, with a dispute over the Diaoyu and Senkakus Islands during the Sino-Japanese war of 1894. More recently, China’s claims to territory in the region rest on what China has termed the ‘Nine-Dash Line’, an area within the South China Sea marked by nine dashes (See Figure 1). These dashes were first put on a map by the Chinese in 1947. Much of the territory within the dashes is disputed among several nations.
The region is an important area in a geopolitcal sense, for several reasons. The area serves as an important trade route and is important both for exports and the importation of essential raw materials and fuels for the countries in this region. It is one of the major economic corridors of the world, with a myriad of nations using this area to pass through.
The UN Ruling on the dispute
Recently, the already tense situation surrounding the South China Sea became escalated further. A United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on territorial claims between the Philippines and China ruled almost exclusively in favour of the Philippines and against China. The ruling found that China’s claims to territory in the region were unfounded under international law. As much of the maritime territory China was claiming were rocks, low tide elevations and submerged banks, not islands, China was not entitled to claim the territory surrounding these geographical features. This is an important distinction legally, as these geographical features only carry with them a right to the surrounding 12-mile radius is territory. Islands, on the other hand, entitle the claimant to the surrounding 200-mile radius of territory. The ruling therefore strongly undermines China’s claim to territory in the area. Though a favourable decision towards the Philippines was anticipated by many experts on the region, the extent to which China’s claims were dismissed by The Hague has taken many by surprise.
Australian Interests in the dispute
Australia, as a close trading partner of most of the nations involved in the dispute, as well as a close ally of the United States, which is strongly opposed to China’s increasingly assertive stance in the region, finds itself in a precarious position. This has been exacerbated by a scathing editorial in Chinese state newspaper The Global Times which harshly denounced Australia’s position on the ruling. The paper labelled Australia a ‘paper cat’ and took aim at Australia’s ‘inglorious history’, making reference to Australia’s colonial past, among other things. The paper argued that Australia, by voicing ‘delirious’ support for The Hague’s ruling, was making itself a ‘pioneer of hurting China’s interest’.
Though The Global Times has a relatively small circulation in China, the fact that this rhetoric came from a government-ran media source is cause for concern from an Australian standpoint. As the dispute escalates, Australia will at some point have to take some action and stake a definitive stance on the issue. Though Australia is not a direct player in the dispute, the region is still important from an Australian strategic perspective. As is the case for the countries geographically adjacent to the South China Sea, Australia has economic interests in the South China Sea remaining accessible and free from escalated conflict between regional interests. If tensions were to escalate further, one possible course of action for Australia could be to resume Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), similar to exercises the United States has performed in the recent past. Such an exercise would strike a balance between showing assertiveness on our part whilst also not being an excessive provocation toward China. Though China is an essential economic partner for Australia, it is unreasonable to expect Australia to neglect its own reasonable interests in the region in order to satisfy the Chinese’s demands in the South China Sea.
This dispute, along with the broader relationship between Australia and China as well as the United States in the region, is one of the key geopolitical issues of our time, despite it receiving relatively little media attention. As Australia further increases its engagement with the Asian region, issues such as these will become more and more important towards Australia’s foreign policy. A measured, yet assertive response from an Australian perspective, as outlined above, will go a long way in ensuring crucial economic partnerships are not impacted whilst Australian strategic interests are also upheld.