Australia’s double standard over territorial disputes
The disputes between Australia and its smaller neighbor East Timor over maritime boundaries could serve as a useful lens for others to see through the double standard of someWestern countries.
On Aug 29, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the AttorneyGeneralGeorge Brandis said in a joint statement that Australia will argue that an arbitration body in TheHague has no jurisdiction to settle a dispute with East Timor over their maritime boundary, adding that Australia did not consider its final report would be binding.
The statement was issued the same day a conciliation commission was due to hear an arbitration case initiated by East Timor against Australia in The Hague over the disputed Timor Sea.
To cut a long story short, the feud between Australia and East Timor stems from the latter’s attempt to renegotiate maritime boundaries with Australia in the Timor Sea, which is abundant in oil and natural gas reserves. Over the years, Australia has allegedly resorted to malpractice, such as spying, to gain commercial profits from a bilateral gas deal.
It is not uncommon for countries to have maritime demarcation disputes. Yet, what is uncommon in the AustraliaEast Timor dispute is the sharp difference between Australia’s attitude towards its own maritime dispute and toward the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Soon after an arbitral tribunal in The Hague handed down its ruling in favor of the Philippines in the South China Sea arbitration case on July 12, Australia joined a chorus led by the United States to press China to accept the ruling, giving a deaf year to China’s stance that the arbitral tribunal had no jurisdiction over the case.
The two sets of disputes bear a lot of similarities: Both involve a big country with a smaller neighbor; the two smaller countries have unilaterally brought the disputes to arbitration; there is a bilateral agreement in place in both cases which shores up peaceful resolutions to maritime disputes.
The first two are clear, but more might need to be explained about the third similarity. While Austra- lia and East Timor agreed a treaty in 2006 to shelve their border dispute for 50 years, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which the Philippines is a member, issued a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, pledging that the parties concerned should resolve their dispute through negotiations.
Nonetheless, Canberra has let hypocrisy play an upper hand and employed a double standard in the two sets of maritime disputes. On July 25, the foreign ministers of Australia, US and Japan issued a trilateral statement in Vientiane, Laos, urging China to respect the international arbitration ruling.
Canberra has also claimed it will continue to exercise the freedom of navigation under the international law in the South China Sea.
“Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.” This is a simple doctrine in international relations, which Australia has apparently ignored when it insisted the conciliation commission has no jurisdiction over its own maritime disputes with East Timor but insisting the arbitral tribunal does have over the dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Such a practice of double standard will only erode Australia’s own credibility and fuel suspicions about Australia’s sincerity about maintaining sound and robust ties with China.
As a non-party to the South China Sea disputes, Australia should not meddle in the troubled waters. Canberra needs to understand an objective, independent and impartial stance towards the disputes not only serves its own interests but the larger picture of ChinaAustralia ties.