Australia’s current South China Sea policies are under strain from two sides. On the China side, Beijing will not agree to any Code of Conduct that is consistent with the arbitral tribunal ruling it rejects. If the ASEAN member states agree to such a Code of Conduct, Australia cannot support it. On the US side, there is an increasing likelihood that the Biden administration will place more pressure on Australia to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in support of the 2016 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruling, forcing Australia to choose between damaging our relations with China or rejecting a request from the United States.
Australia should coordinate with willing Southeast Asian littoral states to influence future Code of Conduct negotiations and encourage states not to sign up to it if the likely Code is not consistent with the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling.
Australia should not conduct FONOPs in the South China Sea that pass within 12 nautical miles of features claimed by China. Rather, Australia should participate in bilateral and mini-lateral naval exercises with willing Southeast Asian littoral states in their respective exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea; it should do this more often and more publicly.
Australia should advocate for regular Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) Leaders’ Summits and inclusion of China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea on the agenda.
These policy adjustments should advance Australia’s interests in strengthening Southeast Asian littoral states’ hands in Code of Conduct negotiations with China, moderate pressure to conduct FONOPs in the South China Sea, and reduce the likelihood and scale of Chinese punitive measures against Australia.