10 March 2016
Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper says a lot about the South China Sea, both directly and indirectly. It expresses concern about land reclamation and construction activities by claimants in the sea and about the possible use of artificial structures for military purpose. It also makes much of the importance of a rules-based global order to Australia’s security, with a clear message that some countries are not following these rules.
While the White Paper does not name China, that’s how most commentators — and China itself — have interpreted these statements. As Benjamin Schreer has claimed, the White Paper ‘reflects the reality in maritime East Asia that China has moved to re-write the rules to fit its strategic preferences and historical narratives’. But what rules are we talking about?
Despite the White Paper’s references to a rule-based global order, the reality is not quite that simple. For one, other countries besides China also don’t follow the rules. Australia’s major security partner, the United States, is not party to many important international conventions, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of US forces in the Pacific, has said for example that, ‘We must continue to operate in the South China Sea to demonstrate that water space and the air above it is international’. But such statements ignore the carefully balanced regime of exclusive economic zones (EEZ) established by UNCLOS.
… Sam Bateman is an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.
IDSS / Online
Last updated on 10/03/2016