The recent quick visit of the Prime Minister to Washington has raised more questions than it has answered about the state of Australia’s relations with the US and China. Have the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister set out a new policy on China and the South China Sea or are they just playing at trying to distance themselves modestly from Washington?
The so far scant reporting of Prime Minister Turnbull’s recent quick trip to Washington and his conversations with President Trump and senior members of the Administration has raised more questions than it has answered. His failure to report formally to Parliament on such an important international visit has only clouded the scene. The timing of the demise of Barnaby Joyce and the public controversy in the US about gun laws after the recent Florida school shooting diverted public attention here away from the substantive issues occasioned by the visit. But the Australian public needs to be much better informed about these issues especially in the light of reporting that the Chinese are toughening their approach to Australia on a number of issues.
In the weeks preceding the Turnbull visit, there were some intriguing signs about the policy debate apparently playing out within the government in Canberra over how far and/or quickly should Australia be reacting to the growing pressure from the US to step more up to the mark in defence commitments. What further commitment could Trump and his senior team be expected to request of Turnbull in Washington? The two specific issues most likely to be raised would be a Freedom of Navigation (FON) operation by the RAN in the South China Sea and moving forward more rapidly on the training deployments of US Marines around Darwin which had been agreed by Prime Minister Gillard and President Obama during the latter’s visit to Australia.
There has been a lot of loose talk about a FON in the SCS which, technically, requires a foreign vessel or aircraft to transit within the 12-kilometre zone around an island claimed by China. The RAN has frequently transitted ships and the RAAF aircraft through the SCS but none has entered the FON zone. In the past, the USN has conducted a small number of FON’s but in the latter years of the Obama administration, they were discontinued as a part of its overall China policy. The Pentagon and Pacific Command have been lobbying the White House to recommence FON’s but they have been deferred until now.
The aircraft carrier US Carl Vinson accompanied by two smaller USN ships is currently in the SCS and the USN has revealed that the convoy would be conducting a FON while there. The Carl Vinson has transitted the SCS on a number of occasions in recent years but this time the media, including ABC TV who were invited to put a camera crew abound the carrier and add pressure on Canberra, have created an impression that the carrier itself might conduct the FON. That would seem most unlikely and the carrier’s commander dodged questions on this. Most likely it would be one of the two smaller ships or aircraft based on the carrier which would conduct the FON. The sight of a behemoth like the Carl Vinson within 12 kilometres from shore would be extraordinarily provocative.
Commentators like Greg Sheridan, long an advocate of a FON by the RAN, have reported that a decision to conduct such an Australian operation was imminent and that this was what the Pentagon and PACOM had been urging. But Foreign Minister Bishop made an unusually detailed response to questions on this issue. She repeated the government line that it would avoid comments on operational issues but pointed out :
- The government did not consider there was a military threat from China
- It had its own priorities for global FON’s
- While Australian actions would complement those of our ally (the US) they would not be directed by them
Turnbull spoke in similar terms before his call on Trump. If the Australian government is seeking to exercise a bit of tactical ambiguity. By delaying a decision to undertake the FON so that it can argue that it was taken on purely Australian grounds and not at the behest of Trump or his cohorts the Australian Government could get itself caught out. But if they are determined to go ahead it might be wise to announce it before the arrival of Ambassador Harris who could claim it as one of his KPI’s!
From the media reporting of Turnbull’s calls around Washington prior to those with Trump, it would seem that the US Defence establishment had maintained their lobbying for an Australian FON ( and more commitment in Northern Australia). One can only speculate about what transpired in the Oval Office meeting but the way Trump added almost as an afterthought that he would “love” the RAN to carry out a FON in the SCS indicated that he was not pushing it too hard. Whether that was in response to Turnbull having sought to explain that Australia took a different view about the utility of FON’s in the SCS or more probably how difficult continued US harassing of his government on this issue could be counter productive in the Australian public arena. Who knows maybe this could also have been a time to urge restraint on the incoming US Ambassador!
On the Marines deployment in Darwin, the “increased” number of Marines to be involved seemed confused by media reporting. The situation there was that there had been an initial agreement that after a year or two of settling in the annual number would rise to 2500. But this augmentation has been stretched out over a much longer period largely as a result of Australia not being able to provide the requisite infrastructure. So it might be that all that was “agreed” was that the facilities for 2500 were to be more speedily provided by Australia. Whether it went beyond that to the much larger Marine involvement which the US has been mooting remains to be seen. The US Marines have had on their books the creation of large sea and air task forces ( 7500 personnel, ships and aircraft) which could be deployed for several months at a time in Darwin and several other locations in the PACOM area. This would have some serious implications for Australia – not the least of which probably would be the development costs of Darwin Port ( now leased by a Chinese company !) which such a Task Force would require.
Incidentally, the deployment of the Carl Vinson and its support ships in the SCS at this very moment will have attracted Kim Jong-un’s attention as over the past year the carrier has been repeatedly presented by the US as a core contributor to its military preparations for a confrontation with the DPRK. Not so long ago it had to hurry back from a deployment in the SCS and Singapore, cancelling an exercise with the RAN, to be at the head of the line in North Asia when the homeported carrier in Yokosuka was delayed in repairs. Though this may be a sign of the deliberate unpredictability games which Defense Secretary Mattis recently outlined in the major US Strategic Review.
It is also hard to resist a comment on “mateship” which has been dreamed up as a mojo to avoid any echo of ” All the way with LBJ”. After both leaders hailing the strong cultural values in our bilateral relationship it was ironic to see them both arguing firmly that our attitudes on gun ownership were so culturally different! One assumes the Prime Minister is being kept well informed on the mounting mess in and around the White House as being a mate of Trump may easily become a costly political cross to bear a bit further down the track!
Mack Williams, former ambassador to the Philippines and Republic of Korea. Royal College of Defence Studies.