Australia’s ambivalent relationship with China has been laid bare by the long-expected ruling by an international court in The Hague in favor of the Philippines against the country’s largest trading partner and wannabe regional hegemon and its aggressive, illegal activities in the South China Sea.

The by-rote, meaningless, bare minimum response from Canberra to the dangerous regional security game now very much in play also underscores a growing weakness in the country’s engagement with the region and its diplomatic heft.

“There would be strong reputational costs. China seeks to be a regional and global leader and requires friendly relations with its neighbours — that’s crucial to its rise. Australia will continue to exercise our international law rights to freedom of navigation and overflight, and support the right of others to do so,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said.

The South China Sea issue has been roiling for the past 65 years and has been in play as a potential inflection point for the entire Asia Pacific region since 2013, when the Philippines showed considerable spine by taking a four-pronged dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

[Conflict in South China Sea an ominous background to this election]

The body’s ruling is the first time China’s claim to a maritime area of 3.5 million square kilometres, which overlaps with the sovereign economic exclusive zones (EEZs) of seven other nations, has been legally tested. It was effectively dismissed as illegal. To boot, the court exposed the fact that China has exported its environmentally destructive growth model into international waters, accelerating the destruction of the world’s oceans for the glory of the ruling Communist Party. Quite the global citizens.

It’s important to understand that this is very much a regional issue, with five other of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Taiwan (as well as Japan) having an identical dispute in the East China Sea. As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies neatly summarised in January 2016, by 2030, China will be such a superpower that the South China Sea will be nothing more than a “Chinese lake”.

Australia is a wealthy, democratic nation with sophisticated armed forces whose long-standing defence alliance with the US has remained the unshakeable politically bipartisan centrepiece of strategic policy. As such, it should be showing courage and leadership on an issue that has triggered a regional arms race.

So the initial response from Bishop and her puppet-masters at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was the usual cut-and-paste huffing and puffing.

There was little demonstration of the complexity of the situation and the usual craven rider — “but Australia does not take any sides” — was added in. It will have the effect of slapping Beijing with a wet lettuce leaf.

Moreover, this response is a lie; it is a continuation of the rapid loss of transparency and obfuscation by governments in Australia.

Australia is quite clearly taking sides — anyone in Canberra who thinks the Chinese are not absolutely convinced Australia it has chosen a side is delusional. So why bother saying it at all? Why not man up?

Secondly, it’s just the latest episode in the determined avoidance by the government (and its Labor predecessors) in attempting to avoid any serious debate about China and “The Relationship”, as the diplomats intone with their usual self-importance.

[What is going on in the South China Sea?]

The reason is simple: when it comes to trade, Australia is all over China — which accounts of about one-third of two-way trade with Australia — like a cheap suit. It is desperate to mimic at least some of the unrepeatable once-in-a-lifetime mining boom. So it gave away far more than it got for the sake of a so-called free trade agreement, which is really a deal for some tariff reductions and access (with conditions) to some (by no means all) market sectors where Australian companies will only ever play a very limited role.

Like many other nations, Australia lives in fear of any reduction in trade and investment by China. It’s time we got over it; there are enough other investors across Asia, the Americas and Europe, to reduce the Chinese to a rounding error.

Yet from a strategic and military standpoint, Australia stands firm with the US and increasingly Japan, a country with the most-loathed status in China. The US and Japan have made it very clear they have taken sides against China. And this week, Japan and India, ever closer, will discuss the decision and its potential repercussions. Australia needs to join this loop.

The Gillard government’s decisions to allow US forces to be stationed in Australia in 2012 and the Coalition government’s handful of invective about China’s maritime aggression and air defence identification zone in the East China Sea were all duly slapped down by China, with La Bishop given rare public rebuke by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The game is up and there is no going back unless Australia wants to dramatically reshape its core alliances; that ain’t gonna happen.

Labor defence spokesman Stephen Conroy is the only politician in Australia prepared to speak up:

“It’s time that Australia demonstrated that it supports the international system and, now that it’s very clear you cannot build artificial islands and claim rights around it — there is no 12-mile limit around these islands that China is claiming — so Australia should authorise its forces to both sail and fly over the areas of the South China Sea.”

And why not?

There are no surprises in the ruling, which basically says the Chinese claims are outrageous, and its intrusion into the Phillipines EEZ illegal; China has used its rapidly improving naval might to stop the country’s fisherman plying their trade in an area around the Scarborough Shoal for the past four years

So far, the commentary from the mainstream Australian media has been disappointing: simplistic, often uninformed and China-centric, ignoring other regional players.

So Australia, with its annual tripartite talks with the US and the Coalition’s embrace of Japan as a defence ally, is necessarily drawn in further to the side it claims it has not taken.

A firm collective response for China’s neighbours and led by the US would hopefully give it time for some thought and recalibration of what is effectively a dick-swinging strategy. If China doesn’t take this time for some positive development, anything could happen and then, perhaps, Australia would finally speak up about the side it has taken.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey