Veteran U.S. Senator and one-time presidential candidate John McCain’s recent visit to Australia focused attention on the increasingly problematic dilemma Australia faces as the geopolitical interests of China and the United States collide in our region of the planet.
Senator McCain, who is chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, tried to ease Australia’s discomfort by saying that Australia should not be forced to choose between its long-time security relationship with the U.S. and its trade relationship with China.
However, he stressed that Australia should consider banding together with other regional countries to conduct collective “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea, arguing that Beijing’s militarisation of islands was in violation of international law.
Senator McCain’s provocative comments while visiting Australia included accusations that China was “behaving like a bully” in the South China Sea.
“I think it is very clear that the Chinese by filling in these islands are militarising them and that is in violation of international law,” the Senator said.
China lays claim to much of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars worth in shipping trade passes every year, and any conflict in the South China Sea would be catastrophic for international commerce. Countries in the region, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, also have claims on the strategic waterway.
United States intelligence mapping estimates that Beijing has added more than 1,300 hectares of land on man-made islands in the South China Sea over the past three years, including the building of runways, ports, aircraft hangars and communications equipment. The U.S. sees this land creation as a sign that China is being openly aggressive about its claims, and is preparing for the possibility of a future conflict in the region.
Senator McCain’s foray into regional politics is significant, but he was not here necessarily as an envoy of President Donald Trump. In fact, Senator McCain has been a periodic critic of the President’s domestic and foreign policies.
It is also worth recalling that during the much-hyped fracas following President Trump’s angry phone call to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the Obama administration’s deal to accept Australia’s stranded asylum seekers, it was Senator McCain who led the chorus of support for the importance of the U.S.-Australian alliance.
During his visit Senator McCain said that the U.S. and its allies had not done enough to stop China’s island building in the region. “I think we are doing a lot but don’t believe we have done enough to respond to Chinese filling in these islands for military purposes that have been judged by an international tribunal as a violation,” he said.
Asked whether U.S. allies, including Australia, should be involved in exercises within the 12-nautical-mile territorial zone around the Chinese-built islands to enforce an international court ruling against their legitimacy, Senator McCain said: “We should be doing patrols, we should be doing joint military exercises ranging from search and rescue to other joint military exercises, which is fairly routine but that doesn’t have to be in a threatening fashion.”
The McCain intervention comes only a few weeks after former prime minister Paul Keating, in typical colourful language, argued that the United States (and by proxy Australia) should be extremely wary about confronting China’s expanding interests in the South China Sea.
“ ‘Glug, glug, glug’ – that’s the sound a sinking battleship makes,” Mr Keating said in a speech to the Lowy Institute in April, suggesting that the U.S. should not expect to dominate China in the waterway.
“I always say to these American admirals that every great battleship went down in the first week at sea in the Second World War.”
Mr Keating said the idea that “China is going to be a strategic client of the United States is nonsense”.
“What [China] is doing in the South China Sea, they are marking out space like a tiger does, you know, a tiger rubs itself against the trees to let any other ones that turn up know this is our space.
“Great states need strategic space and if you don’t give it to them, they will take it … the central stabilising force in East Asia is China, not Japan, and I think this will dawn on the Americans.”
In other words, Mr Keating was arguing that China, as the emerging super power, should not be impeded in stamping its dominance in the South China Sea.
But Senator McCain is urging Australia to adopt the exact opposite stance, arguing that freedom of navigation is a “fundamental principle” of America’s national security policy, and that Australia should join forces with the U.S., Japan, South Korea and India to balance Chinese behaviour in the region.