Archival documents show that Australia’s position on the South China Sea disputes has been consistent since the 1950s.
Community consultations for Australia’s 2016 Defense White Paper hit the nail on the head: Australia has publicly taken a “stand” but not taken a “side” in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
That’s not to say the issue is not of core national interest. All three of the stated Strategic Defense Interests in the 2016 white paper that “drive Australia’s defense strategy” relate to the South China Sea: a secure, resilient Australia, with secure northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communication; a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific; and, a stable Indo-Pacific region and a rules-based global order.
These drivers of Australia’s defense strategy haven’t shifted on the South China Sea. Indeed, they have for more than half a century remained incredibly consistent.
Handwritten, often illegible, pre-1959 filings from the Department of External Affairs (a forerunner to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) offer one of the first Australian accounts of concern over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The declassified memos and documents, many marked Secret, record Australia’s strategic concern over the islands and reveal Canberra’s long-running desire to see a peaceful resolution to the disputes. Among the documents is a briefing on the military significance of the disputed islands from Australia’s Joint Intelligence Committee in 1959. It read:
On April 27, 1950, in connection with the formation of a draft peace treaty with Japan, the Defense Committee agreed that it was in Australia’s strategic interests to work for U.S. Trusteeship of the Spratly Islands. In fact, the Peace Treaty left the question of sovereignty unsettled.
In May 1950, Australia was concerned, for strategic reasons, that the Spratly Islands might fall into Chinese Communist hands. In an attempt to forestall this, the United Kingdom was sounded out about accepting trusteeship of the islands.
The United Kingdom replied that they would probably be unwilling to do anything which would embarrass them in relations with the Communist Chinese. They foresaw the danger their occupation of the islands might be resisted.
The briefing demonstrated a clarity on the strategic importance of the islands and potential avenues for resolution. Australia’s eagerness for the U.K., which has a sound basis as a potential claimant of the Spratly Islands (outlined here), to take an active role in trusteeship of the islands fell on deaf ears.
Instead the UK deflected, suggesting instead that France may be better placed in their claim given they had not yet recognized China.
Yet more prophetically the briefing noted that:
If, in the longer term, the Communist Chinese were to develop the islands militarily, they could make a nuisance out of themselves on the international shipping and air routes on the pretext of infringements of territorial waters and air space and might even shoot down an aircraft occasionally. Again, there is little the West is likely to do, except protest.
The briefing showed a depth of thought on the South China Sea far exceeding the small-Australia views of the day. This “nuisance” factor was explained further, with the briefing suggesting the possible construction of airfields, radar and radio intercept stations, as well as surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles on the islands, but the document questioned the efficacy of such new facilities.
The 1959 Australian declassified document noted:
Although it would be possible to build airfields on the larger islands, these would only be of limited value because of restrictions on the length of runways (maximum length would be about 5000’ on Itu Aba) and the direction of the prevailing winds.
However, looking further ahead to vertical take-off fighters and surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles the islands could become more useful, provided, of course, the occupying power was able to guarantee adequate logistic support.
If air warning radars or radio intercept stations were erected in the Paracels it would extend considerably the cover which the Communist Chinese now enjoy from stations on Hainan and in North Vietnam. Bases in those islands would probably also have similar advantage to the West.
In conclusion, it noted:
Provided the United States maintains its present air and sea supremacy in the area, it could, if it wished, quickly neutralise any Communist Chinese Military bases on the islands.
After the briefing had been circulated in Australia’s policy community, the briefing was forwarded to the Australian Embassy in Washington for discussion with the US State Department. The response from US officials left a lot to be desired.
A cable (SAV.489; Secret; Aug 30, 1959) from the Australian Embassy quoted the Deputy Director of Chinese Affairs as saying that on the island disputes in the South China Sea, the “United States policy was one of ‘let sleeping dogs lie’.”
As a scribbled note from an Australian official on an archived copy of the cable recorded, “Politically, this is not a very satisfactory outcome.”
The National Archives of Australia also catalog intelligence sharing on the disputed islands between Canberra and London from the same period. Australia’s prescient analysis on the disputes fell on deaf ears there, as well as in Washington.
Almost 60 years later, and now faced with China-the-superpower instead of China-the-minnow, the document reads as if a blueprint for China’s development of the islands. For Canberra, the briefing demonstrates a long-held concern over the South China Sea.
Indeed, much of what is documented in the archives is relevant today. In recent years this hesitancy to speak plainly on the disputes has given way to greater confidence and direct statement of Australia’s interests, as seen progressively in Defense White Papers from 1994 until 2016.
Even before then, the 1987 Defense White Paper explicitly noted the routine nature of surveillance over the South China Sea by RAAF Orion aircraft. “Australia will also continue to… operate Orion long range maritime patrol aircraft from Butterworth to maintain surveillance over the South China Sea,” It says.
Overflights continue today with RAAF AP-3C Orion surveillance aircraft.
This consistent policy position demonstrates the central national interest of the South China Sea for Australian foreign and economic policy. The previous “let sleeping dogs lie” approach should be a prompt for today’s decision makers to engage deeply with all parties on the issue, while continuing to conduct routine operations in and above the South China Sea. If this falters, the outcome will be very unsatisfactory indeed.
The above is an edited extract from Out of the ‘Slipstream’ of Power?: Australian Grand Strategy and the South China Sea Disputes, published by the Institute for Security and Development Policy (Sweden).
Elliot Brennan is a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Sweden