The US and Australia are planning to ramp up military exercises in the South China Sea—putting them in direct conflict with Beijing—as the Trump Administration calls for its allies to “put pressure” on China…
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been ramping up his campaign for all US allies to join in putting pressure on China, and during a meeting with Australian officials earlier, Defense Secretary Mark Esper added to that, saying one of the most strategic places they intend to do this is in the South China Sea.
“These exercises not only bolster interoperability, but also send a clear signal to Beijing that we will fly, we will sail, and we will operate wherever international law allows, and defend the right of our allies and partners to do the same. Amid these challenging and uncertain times, the US Australia alliance remains a powerful force for stability and prosperity,” Esper said.
The South China Sea is a body of water known for being rich in natural resources. While China claims it has “historic rights” to portions of the sea, it has run into territorial conflicts because the region also includes the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The US has inserted itself into the conflict and it is now calling for increased joint military exercises with Australia in the region that could result in a direct conflict with China.
Up until this point, Australia has largely presented itself as a neutral party when it comes to conflicts in the South China Sea, but it actually submitted a complaint to the United Nations last week following a confrontation with Chinese warships in the region, in which it alleges that China has “no legal basis” for its claims in the sea.
The complaint states that, “The Australian Government rejects any claims by China that are inconsistent with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in particular, maritime claims that do not adhere to its rules on baselines, maritime zones and classification of features.”
Not only is this a significant shift in policy, but the timing is also incredibly notable as we have Australia’s Foreign Minister in Washington right now for talks with the Trump Administration when they are looking to escalate involvement in the region.
China was quick to fire back, and it accused Australia of intentionally trying to provoke a conflict with its complaint, in order to show loyalty to the US. An article published by The Global Times states that “The relationship between China and Australia has now deteriorated to a very bad point, and the chance for a turnaround is slim in the near future. One of the main reasons is that Australia’s policy lacks independence, and its current choice is to closely follow the US lead.”
Earlier this summer, we saw a dispute break out after Australia accused China of being behind a cyberattack, and that resulted after in China slapping a tariff of 80% on Australian barley and banned beef imports from four Australian firms. Australia did not retaliate at the time. But this meeting could be seen as a way to counter China in a different way.