AT the end of one of the country’s longest and closest elections in half a century, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared victory on Sunday. His stay in power could be a good omen for China-Australia ties, which gathered robust momentum after their historic free trade deal came into effect at the end of last year.
To continue to maintain that momentum in bilateral interactions, Turnbull needs to be politically pragmatic and flexible, especially because the South China Sea issue has put him to immediate test. The South China Sea disputes between China and some of its Southeast Asian neighbors should not have become a concern for Australia had it stayed true to its claim of neutrality.
But just one day after the arbitral tribunal passed an utterly one-sided ruling in the case initiated by the Philippines against China in the South China Sea dispute, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told ABC Radio that China’s reputation would suffer if it ignores the ruling, and called on both Beijing and Manila to respect it.
If this is the stance Australia has to take in order to show its allegiance to its long-time ally the United States, it is also enough to infuriate its biggest trading partner, China, which believes the arbitral tribunal’s ruling has no legal basis at all.
Australian leaders may want to draw reference from a recent TV program jointly produced by China Central Television and Sky News Australia, in which experts from the two countries discussed Beijing-Canberra ties. The South China Sea issue featured prominently in the debate broadcast by CCTV News on July 4 and provided clear evidence that the maritime disputes, which do not concern Australia, have become a sticking point in bilateral ties.
Telecast just two days after Australia’s national elections, the program drew a lot of attention from both sides, testifying to the rising importance of China-Australia ties and concerns over the effect of the South China Sea issue on them.
During the debate, Chinese experts said they were puzzled by Australia’s involvement in the maritime disputes, which is what many Chinese and Australian people also feel. Explanations that Australia relies heavily on the shipping lanes in the South China Sea to justify its involvement in the disputes seem superficial after John Russell with the North Head Communications, admitted during the debate that Canberra’s role in the South China Sea is just a political contribution to Washington’s stance on the issue.
Obviously, the US-Australia military alliance, forged some 60 years ago, continues to influence Canberra’s stance on many key political and strategic issues even today.
In response, Zhu Feng, director of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University, said he respects Australia’s history and believes China does not seek to weaken the alliance, but he earnestly hopes Canberra develops an independent policy toward Beijing that truly reflects its importance in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the South China Sea issue, the wise choice for Australia would be to stay neutral because the sea, thanks to the US’ meddling, has become increasingly volatile.
Against the healthy background of bilateral trade, flow of tourists and students, and increasing cooperation in other fields, Australia could risk casting a shadow on bilateral ties by meddling in the South China Sea issue.
Therefore, compared with domestic challenges, the one posed by the South China Sea issue can be more difficult for Turnbull to deal with. Turnbull should understand it would serve Australia’s interests, too, if it does not jump on the US bandwagon so eagerly to fish in the troubled waters of the South China Sea.