National Security

Australia Joins U.S. Opposition to Chinese Expansion in South China Sea

Liaoning, a Chinese Type 001 aircraft carrier / Getty Images

Australia submitted a diplomatic note to a United Nations commission on July 23, signaling a shift from neutrality to support for the United States in its fight against China’s expansive South China Sea claims, The Diplomat reported Monday.

Australia’s note to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf challenged the legal basis for many of China’s claims, including those to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, as well as rights to sovereign and internal commerce in the sea’s zone. 

Even further, Canberra rejected one of China’s more ambitious claims—that artificial islands can become internationally recognized—as fully incorrect. Australia "does not accept that artificially transformed features can ever acquire the status of an island," the diplomatic brief reads.

The change of tune from America’s oceanic ally comes soon after America’s own strategic pivot. On July 14, Washington announced its intention to no longer recognize Chinese claims within the body of water. In effect, the move promotes freedom of navigation and commerce as well as the sovereignty of Asian allies in a region through which a massive amount of the world’s commerce—some 21 percent in 2016—flows.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech last Thursday only intensified Washington’s pivot. Pompeo warned that the "free world" is at risk from China’s rising global ambitions.

Australia's national security rhetoric is starting to resemble that of the United States. "The rules-based global order is being undermined by disruptions from a widening range of sources," Australia's 2020 Defence Strategic Update reads. Though not explicitly mentioning China, the document does make the "militarization of the South China Sea" a top security priority.

In recent years, the Australian-American alliance has been tumultuous, but experts are hoping Canberra’s newly muscular stance on China may signify a shifting dynamic. 

"The United States has long asked its Asian allies to do more—for themselves throughout the region, and with regards to China. Australia is responding, and the United States should work with Canberra to achieve its ambitious agenda," American Enterprise Institute scholar Zack Cooper and United States Studies Centre fellow Charles Edel wrote"Such efforts could constrain the Communist Party’s push outward and thereby stabilize the region."