The Coral Sea: A mir­ror im­age of the South China Sea

Australia, like China, is mil­i­taris­ing the wa­ters off its east­ern coast

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - WORLD - By Ja­cob Shapiro

Australia and China pos­sess pro­foundly dif­fer­ent ge­ogra­phies, but in one key way, they are sim­i­lar: the bulk of the wealth and pop­u­la­tions of both coun­tries is con­cen­trated on east­ern-fac­ing coasts. These coasts, in turn, face seas con­tain­ing small is­lands that, if held by a hos­tile power, could be used to block Chi­nese or Aus­tralian ships from en­ter­ing the greater Pa­cific and en­gag­ing in global trade – in ef­fect, crip­pling their economies. China, of course, is fac­ing the South and East China seas. Australia is next to the less­dis­cussed Coral Sea (the Tas­man Sea be­ing vir­tu­ally se­cure al­ready). China’s im­per­a­tive to so­lid­ify its grip over the South and East China seas is mir­rored by Australia’s re­cent push to so­lid­ify its con­trol over the Coral Sea. The dif­fer­ence is how each goes about do­ing it.

China’s mil­i­tari­sa­tion of the South China Sea in re­cent years has been well pub­li­cised, but there is noth­ing re­cent about Chi­nese ter­ri­to­rial claims in the South and East China seas. China – that is, the Repub­lic of China – first pub­lished a map de­lin­eat­ing its mar­itime claims in the South China Sea in 1912. The num­ber of dashes used and the pre­cise claims on this line have changed slightly over time, but over­all, China’s ter­ri­to­rial claims were es­sen­tially the same un­der Mao as un­der Chi­ang – and re­main so un­der Xi to­day. The same is true of the East China Sea, though un­til re­cently China’s naval ca­pa­bil­i­ties pre­cluded any at­tempt at chal­leng­ing Ja­pa­nese con­trol over the Senkaku Is­lands, which China has claimed as its own since the 14th cen­tury.

In this sense, Chi­nese mil­i­tari­sa­tion of the South and East China seas can le­git­i­mately be de­scribed as cen­turies-old. What has ebbed and flowed over time was China’s abil­ity to project power in these seas – a ca­pa­bil­ity it has only just be­gun to re­de­velop. The be­gin­ning of the cur­rent ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes in the South and East China seas can be lo­cated in two dates: Jan­uary 19, 1974, when the Chi­nese navy fought off an at­tempt by the South Vietnamese navy to take the Para­cel Is­lands in the South China Sea, es­tab­lish­ing de facto Chi­nese con­trol, and Novem­ber 24, 1971, when the Ja­pa­nese Diet rat­i­fied a deal trans­fer­ring con­trol of the Senkakus from the United States to Ja­pan – in ef­fect, putting Chi­nese mar­itime trad­ing lanes in the hands of a coun­try that had com­mit­ted the Rape of Nank­ing 33 years prior.

Since the 1970s, China has used a com­bi­na­tion of eco­nomic in­cen­tives, po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, mil­i­tary force and diplo­matic niceties to en­sure its con­tin­ued con­trol of these vi­tal mar­itime do­mains. In re­cent years, it has re­lied more on mil­i­tary force to do so, a re­flec­tion of the Chi­nese navy’s ris­ing power. It’s hard to pin­point ex­actly when China be­gan es­tab­lish­ing mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions on is­lands in the South China Sea – in 1990, for ex­am­ple, China built a run­way and air­port on Woody Is­land, but it de­ployed sur­face-to-air mis­siles and fighter jets on the is­land only in 2016. Suf­fice to say, China has been do­ing so for decades, even if op­po­si­tion has be­come vo­cal only in re­cent years. As for the Senkakus, Chi­nese naval ships oc­ca­sion­ally en­ter Ja­pa­nese ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters to make their pres­ence known, but the fre­quency of such as­ser­tion of nav­i­ga­tion acts has in­creased since 2016. China also of­fers de­vel­op­ment aid and eco­nomic in­cen­tives to coun­tries will­ing to rec­og­nize its claims or over­look its is­land-mak­ing in the South China Sea, with its re­cent court­ing of the Philip­pines be­ing the most prom­i­nent ex­am­ple.

Australia and its fel­low English-speak­ing coun­tries (New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S., pri­mar­ily), as well as Ja­pan, have taken note of the slow and steady rise of Chi­nese power in the South China Sea and its de­sire for power in the East China Sea. At is­sue is not so much what China has done – in the un­likely event of war, the mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions on South China Sea is­lands could be de­stroyed and their re­sup­ply could be fairly eas­ily curbed – but what the con­tin­ued slow con­quer­ing of these re­gions might por­tend. There has been no se­ri­ous at­tempt to stop China be­yond the oc­ca­sional free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion oper­a­tion, mostly be­cause for the coun­tries pow­er­ful enough to stop China, con­trol over the reefs, atolls and is­lands in the South China Sea are not worth fight­ing for. What con­cerns Australia (and New Zealand) more is the way China has been us­ing a sim­i­lar strat­egy in the Coral Sea. Though China has no his­tor­i­cal claim to own­er­ship of the var­i­ous is­land na­tions of the South Pa­cific, ev­ery­thing else in its tool­kit is fair game.

Australia has re­sponded by es­sen­tially mim­ick­ing China’s strat­egy in the South China Sea – though with ex­tremely dif­fer­ent tac­tics. This is in part by ne­ces­sity. China, af­ter all, is the old­est civil­i­sa­tion in world his­tory, and many of the is­lands it wants to con­trol are un­in­hab­ited; some aren’t even is­lands. Australia, by com­par­i­son, is a rel­a­tively re­cent cre­ation of the Bri­tish Em­pire, and the sun has set on the im­pe­rial rule of the South Pa­cific by white An­glo-Saxon Protes­tants. In ad­di­tion, many of the is­land na­tions with which Australia needs strate­gic re­la­tion­ships are not un­in­hab­ited. What works for China in the South and East China seas can­not work for Australia in the Coral Sea – Australia has to be far more so­lic­i­tous of its would-be part­ners. If Australia is too heavy-handed, it only serves to drive South Pa­cific coun­tries into the wait­ing arms of China, which, de­spite its ex­pan­sion­ist am­bi­tions, is roughly 4,800 kilo­me­ters away, mak­ing it a po­ten­tially very at­trac­tive part­ner for South Pa­cific coun­tries.

Australia has greatly ac­cel­er­ated its ex­e­cu­tion of this strat­egy in 2018. Whether by sign­ing a new bi­lat­eral se­cu­rity treaty with Van­u­atu, in­creas­ing its aid and de­vel­op­ment projects through­out the re­gion, or spear­head­ing a new se­cu­rity frame­work for the Pa­cific Is­lands Fo­rum, Australia is try­ing to en­sure that it is the dom­i­nant power of the Coral Sea. Last month, it blocked China from fund­ing a ma­jor re­gional mil­i­tary base in Fiji by not just out­bid­ding Bei­jing but, as Fiji’s mil­i­tary chief of staff told The Aus­tralian news­pa­per, by of­fer­ing a more “holis­tic” part­ner­ship rather than sim­ply trad­ing yuan for in­flu­ence. Australia also com­pleted up­grad­ing in­fra­struc­ture at Pa­pua New Guinea’s Lom­brum Naval Base on Manus Is­land last month, and it is re­port­edly ne­go­ti­at­ing with PNG to es­tab­lish a per­ma­nent Aus­tralian naval pres­ence at the base (the of­fi­cial agree­ment is ex­pected in mid-Novem­ber). Aus­tralian broad­caster ABC also re­ported last month that Aus­tralian soldiers might be­gin reg­u­lar troop ro­ta­tions in Pa­pua New Guinea in the near fu­ture.

It would not be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that Australia is “mil­i­taris­ing” the Coral Sea. It is ren­o­vat­ing naval fa­cil­i­ties to be able to host Aus­tralian and pre­sum­ably U.S. naval as­sets; sign­ing new, beefed-up se­cu­rity agree­ments with neigh­bour­ing coun­tries; de­ploy­ing troops in the re­gion; pro­vid­ing neigh­bors with naval as­sets (Australia plans to pro­vide 21 Guardian-class ves­sels to 12 Pa­cific na­tions and East Ti­mor by 2023); and spend­ing money on de­vel­op­ment projects like un­der­sea high-speed in­ter­net ca­bles for the

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