China’s actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea are “unhelpful,” Australian Defence Minister David Johnston said at a security forum, echoing his U.S. counterpart who called China a destabilizing factor.
“They’ve been certainly unhelpful, and if they’re unhelpful they must be destabilizing,” Johnston, 58, said yesterday in an interview at the Shangri-La security forum in Singapore. “The unilateral action of the declaration of boundaries is completely unhelpful and takes us in the wrong direction.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government is seeking to build out Australia’s defense capacity at a time of rising assertiveness by China in the region. Abbott must balance his nation’s interests between the U.S. -- a strategic ally that has Marines based in the northern Australia city of Darwin -- and top trading partner China, which it criticized last year for proclaiming an air defense identification zone over islands in the East China Sea claimed by both China and Japan.
The Australian government on May 14 called for restraint on South China Sea tensions, after clashes between Vietnamese and Chinese coast guard vessels and violent anti-China protests in Vietnam. China last month placed an oil rig in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands also claimed by Vietnam.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a speech to the Singapore forum on May 31 said China had undertaken “destabilizing, unilateral actions” to assert its claims in the South China Sea, drawing a rebuke from China. Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said Hagel’s speech was “full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation.”
The tensions come as President Xi Jinping expands China’s naval reach to back claims in the South China Sea that are based on its “nine-dash line” map, first published in 1947. That line runs hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo.
It is incumbent on nations such as Australia and the U.S. to engage China, Johnston said in the interview. Australia does not take sides in the territorial disputes, although “the potential for miscalculation is always of extreme concern to us.”
“We’re seeing the advance, technologically of China, strategically of China, and I think the diplomatic and international engagement skills of China are lagging a little,” he said. “We have enormous commercial engagement with China, both at home and in China. We need to take that commercial engagement and keep working diplomatically.”
The U.S. presence in Darwin hasn’t yet reached the agreed maximum of 2,500 Marines, and there are no plans to lift the potential number past that point, Johnston said.
“It’s very embryonic, the relationship as we take the Marines, and work up. It’s not something that the region should, I think, be rightly concerned about.”
The Australian defense force has followed the U.S. in announcing reduced engagement with the Thai military after it took power in a coup on May 22. The government postponed three activities with the Thai military planned for the coming weeks in Thailand and will prevent coup leaders from traveling to Australia.
“We urge the military to quickly get on a path to re-running elections and stabilizing the country and getting back to its democratic base,” Johnston said. “Our response to suspend and review military ties is reasonable and I think we’ll keep a watching brief on that. We are concerned whenever there’s a military coup.”
Elections may be held in Thailand in a year, or at most 18 months, Thai Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow told reporters yesterday in Singapore.
“I appreciate their concern, I know why they have to take those steps,” Sihasak said of Australia’s actions. “But most important is that they have to look at this from the long-term perspective and ensure that nothing is done to impair the long-term relationship that Thailand has with the United States and with Australia. Because this current situation is temporary.”
Australia’s ruling Liberal-National coalition in its May budget increased defense spending, committing A$122.7 billion ($114 billion) in the four years through June 2018, A$9.6 billion more than the amount earmarked by the previous Labor government. The government will bring forward A$1.5 billion of spending to fund purchases, Johnston said at the time.
The stepped-up spending comes as Asia-Pacific nations focus on upgrading their military, with Xi making a more combat-ready army and a navy with broader reach a priority. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has increased defense spending two years running and China’s defense budget will rise 12.2 percent this year to 808.2 billion yuan ($129 billion).
Australia’s annual defense budget of A$25 billion will need to more than double in 10 years if the government increases spending to its target of 2 percent of gross domestic product, according to a government-commissioned audit released in May.
“The defense portfolio was treated by the former government as an ATM, now that’s unsatisfactory,” Johnston said. “This conference has identified the increasing temperature, the strategic temperature in the region. It is very, very foolish to have done that,” he said of previous budget cuts.
“We’re on the right track but there’s certainly no room for complacency.”
Johnston said Australia is talking with “any and all nations” with potentially useful technology as the country looks to build new Collins-class submarines. Abbott has pledged to build the vessels in South Australia state.
Japan’s diesel-electric submarine “is a very capable submarine, its submerged weight is the sort of size and dimensions that we would be thinking of,” Johnston said. “We will continue to look at that as being one of the potential areas that we might find some assistance from.”
“I’m very much wanting them to lead on that because they have some issues that are personal to them -- both political and constitutional -- that I think we need to be respectful of,” he said.
While Abe has loosened Japan’s more than four-decade-old restrictions on foreign weapons sales as part of his push to bolster the country’s military, curbs remain and Japan is also bound by its pacifist constitution.