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Tensions between China and Japan have ratcheted up in recent years to the point where their territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea is seen as among the region’s most dangerous flashpoints. The prospect of Sino-Japanese conflict over these islands is one that cannot be taken lightly by Australia. Economically, three of our four leading trading partners are located in Northeast Asia, while sea lanes vital to Australian trade run through the waters of the East China Sea. Strategically and politically, two US allies are based in this region and America retains a strong forward military presence there.

This paper starts from the premise that insufficient attention has been given to the potential ramifications for Australia of conflict in the East China Sea, particularly in terms of whether Australia’s alliance obligations with the United States could embroil Canberra in a conflict. The paper is motivated in part by Defence Minister Johnston’s June 2014 remarks stating that the ANZUS alliance would not commit Australia to a conflict where the US had sent forces to support Japan. While reminiscent of remarks made a decade earlier by then-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in relation to the prospect of Australian involvement via ANZUS in a Taiwan contingency, Johnston’s assessment has not attracted anywhere near the same level of attention and analysis as those made by Downer in August 2004.

The purpose of this paper is to begin to fill this gap in Australia’s public and policy debate by analysing the circumstances under which conflict in the East China Sea could occur and the implications thereof for Australia. The paper answers three questions:

1. What does Australia’s alliance relationship with the US commit Canberra to in the event of conflict in the East China Sea?

2. What are the risks that Australia faces as a result of ANZUS and other associated international commitments?

3. What can be done to better understand and manage these risks?

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