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US Allies Tighten Alliance to Contain China’s Maritime Expansion

South China Sea map
South China Sea map

Australia’s recent shift to a more combative stance against China will tighten political and military coordination among U.S.-allied nations that want to check Beijing’s maritime expansion, analysts said this week.

Canberra broke its neutral stance toward China with harsh pledges and comments in May, June and July due to a series of problems with the communist government, despite brisk trade ties. In particular, Australia openly backed the United States last month by sending the United Nations a letter that described Beijing’s sovereignty claims in the contested South China Sea as illegal.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested in a speech Wednesday that his country would work more closely with India, Japan and the United States – an ally already so close that a Chinese newspaper in May quoted a netizen calling Canberra a “dog” of Washington.

Those four countries belong to a group dubbed the Quad, which formed in 2007 to discuss security issues in Asia, including China’s activities. Specialists predict more from the Quad, this time galvanized by Australia, even though the United States normally leads.

“It appears at least from the Australian end that Australia is sort of trying to take a significant directive role rather than a follower role,” said Stuart Orr, professor of management at Deakin University in Australia.

'Concrete action'

On Wednesday, Morrison, addressing an Indo-Pacific security forum, noted the June Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with India. The partnership calls for meetings at least once every two years between defense ministers. Morrison added Wednesday that Australia reached a memorandum of cooperation in July to work with Japan on space cooperation and said Australia planned to take “concrete action to support our Pacific and Southeast Asian friends and family.” Japan and India have their own bitter territorial issues with China.

The U.S. and Australian governments have cooperated for decades on resisting foreign governments that Washington dislikes. Now the U.S. side is embroiled in a trade dispute with China. Both Western countries resent China for suspected technology-related crimes and want the Asian country investigated as the source of the coronavirus.

Australia proposed in May a formal inquiry into the Chinese origins of the pandemic and a month later Morrison said his country had been the target of a “state-based” cyber-attack. Beijing called the June remark a smear.

Compared to other countries worried about Beijing, “I think Washington and Canberra are on the same page of the book about the problems with China,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.

“I think that they have a much stronger sense of unity about confronting China in a smart way,” he said.

None of the Quad countries claims the South China Sea, but all of them see it as a pivot point for Chinese expansion past its land borders and recall Beijing as a Cold War foe.

Fish, energy reserves, shipping lanes

China vies for sovereignty over the contested sea with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All five rival claimants have weaker militaries and less infrastructure on the sea’s hundreds of tiny islets than does China. Claimants prize the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea for fish, energy reserves and shipping lanes.

Officials in Beijing cite historical usage records to defend their claim over about 90 percent of the sea.

“China would at least have to be wary and at the same time it would have to be more concerned about Australia and the U.S. leading or sort of spearheading what they would likely see as rather unwelcome prospects of greater external interest and perceived meddling in the South China Sea,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

India may hope to build up the Quad amid its military standoff with China near a disputed land border, London media organization India Inc. suggested in a commentary after Morrison met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Australia’s leadership role in the Quad could mean more joint naval exercises that anger China, scholars believe.

Japan and Australia joined the USS Ronald Reagan and a strike group last month for joint exercises southeast of China.

U.S.-Australia military exercises will gain speed, especially if they involve Japan, India, and traditional pro-U.S. European allies such as France and the United Kingdom, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

'Moral standpoint'

Southeast Asian states, despite overlapping South China Sea claims with Beijing, have shown less enthusiasm than have Quad countries toward Australia’s new assertiveness. Some, such as Brunei and the Philippines, receive aid and investment from China. Their negotiating bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hopes for an eventual maritime code of conduct with Beijing.

However, they welcome the Quad’s activities from a “moral standpoint,” Koh said.

Australia and Vietnam, the most outspoken maritime claimant, issued a joint statement last year to express “serious concerns about developments in the South China Sea, including land reclamation and militarization of disputed features,” a likely reference to Chinese activity.

Expect Australia eventually to step up engagement with Vietnam, Thayer said.