Australia needs a new foreign policy. Tillerson’s remarks on China make it urgent

Rex Tillerson’s cosy relationship with the Russian government was set to be the big controversy of his confirmation hearings to become the next US secretary of state. But it was the subject of Chinese construction in the South China Sea, and his statement that Chinese access to their facilities on the islands is “not going to be allowed”, that held the biggest implications for American foreign policy and security in Asia Pacific.

The suggestion of a more aggressive, interventionist, American regional involvement highlights the pressing task of developing a more independent foreign policy for Australia. A foreign policy which works closely with the US when it is undergirding regional peace and stability, but is willing and equipped to break from it when it is not.

Since Donald Trump’s election there has been a notable increase in calls for Australia to pursue a more independent foreign policy. Trump’s comments on Taiwan and the “One China” policy, as well as his questioning of the alliance with Japan and South Korea – and raising the prospect of their development of nuclear weapons – have raised the spectre of a potentially destabilising American influence in the region. This latest indication of an incoming period of intense confrontation between China and the US will only amplify those calls.

Speaking before the Senate committee on foreign relations, Tillerson raised the issues of both construction in the South China Sea, and the unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over a large swathe of the East China Sea. He stated that the US would have to send a strong message to China over this activity, that the construction in the South China Sea must stop, and that China’s access to the installations it has already constructed is to be disallowed.

‘The US marine base in Darwin ... and the implications it holds for Australian freedom of action should the US decide to militarily intervene in the South China Sea are troubling.’ Photograph: Patrina Malone/PR IMAGE
‘The US marine base in Darwin … and the implications it holds for Australian freedom of action should the US decide to militarily intervene in the South China Sea are troubling.’ Photograph: Patrina Malone/PR IMAGE

The Chinese military construction in the South China Sea has proceeded at such a pace that it now constitutes a number of significant installations. Two years ago the news that China had placed mobile artillery pieces on one of its artificial islands reverberated across headlines around the world. Today China commands anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and anti-missile systems, surveillance and intelligence facilities, naval port facilities, and military aircraft housing, across a number of island installations, some of which have ballooned in size both approaching and beyond the US naval base at Pearl Harbour.

Unilateral Chinese expansion in the South China Sea should be discouraged through a variety of economic, diplomatic, and even military means, in the form of freedom of navigation exercises. But if Tillerson’s policy was to be implemented, nothing short of direct American military intervention would foreseeably prevent China from accessing these installations in what it considers its own sovereign territory. The mere prospect of this raises important questions regarding Australia’s role in regional security, and its alliance with the US.

The US alliance has been an object of near-continuous bipartisan political orthodoxy in Australia ever since John Curtin proclaimed that we would now “look to America’ for our security in 1941. Despite a constantly shifting security environment since that time, Australian policymakers and politicians have in-the-main regarded the US alliance as the best foreign policy vehicle for achieving the dual pillars of the national interest: security and prosperity.

A robust American regional presence that reflects the interests of its broad array of local allies, and conducts a firm but restrained military policy, is certainly in Australia’s best interests. But a rash power, which threatens open conflict with our biggest trading partner over bases, which frankly are grossly overshadowed and outgunned by the US’s own vast network of military assets throughout the region, is not.

The US marine base in Darwin is an important component of this regional military build-up, and the implications it holds for Australian freedom of action should the US decide to militarily intervene in the South China Sea are troubling. The Marine Air-Ground Task Force stationed there specialises in the exact amphibious operations and integration with air assets which would be necessary to enforce the kind of intervention that Tillerson has called for.

Australia’s ability to dictate the terms of use of American military assets stationed in our country, should conflict with China arise, is extremely doubtful. As is our ability to influence the shape of the US presence in Asia through our alliance if it takes the form of raw US hegemonic interest and overwhelming military power, rather than an anchor within a framework of the diverse interests of states in the region.

Tillerson’s comments on intervening in the South China Sea may come to nothing, he may not even pass his confirmation hearings. Regardless, they are a stark reminder of the stakes involved in military conflict in our region, and Australia’s ability to independently navigate them. Australian policymakers must commit to a more robust engagement with our own foreign policy, and place our country in the position to diverge from American action when we do not judge it to be in our own best interests.

Stuart Rollo is a freelance writer and essayist focusing on Asia-Pacific politics, international security, and Australian national affairs. He is currently working at Sydney University on a research project on strategic minerals, imperial resources, and international politics. He is co-author with Tess Lea of A Servant is Not Greater Than His Master: American Primacy in Australian Security in the forthcoming book Hearts and Minds: US Cultural Management in 21st Century Foreign Relations.

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