The Sydney Morning Herald
23 May 2018
Cattle ranchers in south-east Arizona, where I grew up, have an expression: “You can’t roll your sleeves and wring your hands at the same time.” The ranchers usually directed this phrase towards government officials who were vacillating on an issue. The point was, quit lamenting about the what-ifs and the what-might-have-beens; accept the facts, roll up your sleeves, and get on with the job.
The same could be said about the hand wringing over the 1200 hectares of land mass China has created in the South China Sea; a situation aptly described by a serving senior Australian defence official I know as “being beyond a checking move, its checkmate”.
Checkmate indeed. Characterising these new plots of land as artificial, or man-made, or “below low-tide exposure” is just hand wringing. The land masses are there and they are occupied.
Some would argue that Australia, the United States and others in the region have done more than just wring their hands by conducting naval and air freedom-of-navigation activities. Maybe so, but the fact remains China continues to expand its operations and project its power in the region from these constructed islands, despite the patrols and the international rhetoric condemning their creation. In just the latest example, China has landed long-range bombers that could cover a large area of the waters.
To date, the collective strategy towards China has been focused on countering its activities. Such an approach tends to leave one constantly on the back foot, reacting instead of leaning forward. And, the strategy is one dimensional – reliant almost exclusively on military power.
So how do Australia and its partners get on the front foot? By aggressively engaging China to connect with them in and around the South China Sea. For example, China recently established a base in Djibouti to ensure the safety of its commercial shipping from piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia. However, according to 2017 and 2018 statistics from the United Nations and the International Maritime Bureau, these waters are not the world’s most perilous seas. The sea lanes around the Malacca Straits and in the Java and South China seas are where pirate attacks occur most often.
So why not engage China to use these new land masses in the South China Sea as bases for joint or combined operations with regional partners to block piracy and/or people smuggling? Additionally, such joint/combined bases could be used as forward staging areas for conducting humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations.
Instead of being bases to challenge regional security, they could be used to enhance confidence and co-operation with Australia, the US and other South China Sea claimants. These newly constructed land forms could also be used for weather radar sites, space tracking stations or for tsunami monitoring. The point is, there are endless uses that would benefit all nations.
You cannot surge trust, it is acquired over time. And, while China claims it wants to improve its co-operation and dialogue with Australia and other regional nations, there is no denying its expanding power projection capabilities and stated national ambitions cause one to pause and doubt China’s sincerity when it comes to investing in actions that encourage and preserve regional freedoms and promote prosperity.
An offer to co-operate militarily with China would hold President Xi Jinping accountable for his 2015 public assertion at the White House that China would not “pursue a militarisation” of the islands it has made in the South China Sea. Such an offer would put the the ball in China’s court – if it says no, it ought to explain why.
It is time for both nations to roll up their sleeves and get on with the job of forging trust. China’s created islands in the South China Sea serve as the perfect means for turning rhetoric into action and doubts into conviction.