As Australians are lulled to sleep by the endless mini-stunts of the marathon election campaign, back in the real world there are a raft of new developments in the South China Sea that could make life particularly interesting for the lucky winner (if there is one) of the July 2 poll.

On Wednesday, the Unites States said that China had intercepted a US spy plane across the South China Sea, forcing it into a rapid and dangerous descent. It represents the latest foray by the US into areas claimed by China in the South China Sea around islands it has constructed on top of underwater rocks claimed as its own territory despite having competing claims with seven other countries, including Taiwan.

“The US plane flew close to Hainan Island. Two Chinese aircraft followed and monitored at a safe distance. There were no dangerous manoeuvres from the Chinese aircraft. Their actions were completely professional and safe,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said.

This incident came only two days ahead of today’s inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s first female president and the return to power of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 24 million-strong country (small, by Chinese standards, but roughly the same population as Australia).

The DPP has not only regained the presidency, it also has a majority in the Legislative Yuan, the country’s parliament.

The shift in Taiwan is very much top of mind in Beijing, which still insists on describing the country as an errant province. Yet it is only one of a collection of events in the past two weeks that, together, pose a collective threat to the increasingly bellicose Chinese leadership. To say things are tense in the region is certainly not an understatement.

Two days after Tsai’s inauguration, US President Barack Obama will begin a three-day visit to Vietnam, a country that barely 40 years ago the US was at war with. The main issue on the table will be whether Washington will lift its longstanding partial arms embargo, acceding to an equally longstanding request from Vietnam to be able to buy lethal weapons from the United States. The quid pro quo could be US access to its former Vietnam War naval base Cam Ranh Bay, which has been refitted in recent years, ironically, with the assistance of Russia. This would make Beijing apoplectic.

The last, but not least, issue is which way the new president of the Philippines will jump. He has stated that he will ride jet skis to protect the country’s claims in the South China Sea. But his key election promise was to make life better for regular Filipinos. Promises of money and infrastructure from China would help to fast track this, and all eyes in Asia, are, as they say, watching that space.

The deeper and more fundamental geopolitics at play, in the Philippines in particular, is the effect on the Associations of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a workable quasi-political bloc to counter China in the region.

China already appears to have wrapped up at least the surface support of Brunei, which is fast running out of the oil that has nominally made it the richest nation per capita in the region, as well as the despotic regimes in poverty-stricken Cambodia and Laos, for its South China Sea claims.

The “defection” of one of the Philippines’ closest neighbours into the “China Camp”, or even into the neutral column, would cast serious doubts over the efficacy of ASEAN, a subject that is certainly turning the minds of diplomats both inside and outside the 10-nation group across the region, including Australia.

As Crikey noted recently, these Made in China fractures in the ASEAN alliance played a significant role in Singapore’s decision to upgrade its military ties with Australia; the city-state simply does not have the faith that it once did in its neighbours.

If it’s brave, the Australian government should make a public show of congratulating Tsai today. Despite the false and dated construct of “One China”, Taiwan is an independent, democratic country with whom Australia shares far more values than we do mainland China.

In many ways, Australia’s recent defence white paper could not be more timely, and it would not be surprising if an event or incident in the region propelled regional security into the election campaign.

And it’s one where incumbency and the Coalition have traditionally had an advantage and the government’s Foreign Affairs/Defence team of Julie Bishop and Marise Payne is certainly more convincing than the opposition pairing of Tanya Plibersek and Stephen Conroy.

Whatever the case, it’s odds on that Australia’s next cabinet will have plenty of security issues on its plate.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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