Australia should expect Donald Trump to ask when it will send a ship to the South China Sea on a freedom of navigation operation, according to former deputy Defence chief Peter Jennings.
Mr Jennings, now head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Australia would be asked to do more in the region under a Trump presidency.
“I think we can expect an early phone call to say, ‘When, Australia, will you undertake a freedom of navigation operation through the South China Sea?” Mr Jennings said.
“For over a year now we’ve been saying that this is a vital Australian national security interest, yet we’ve declined to send a ship through the region.
“The Obama administration was distracted. Trump will probably have higher expectations of us and my view is we should be doing these things for our own security interests, not to please the Americans.
“But if Trump says, ‘What is your intention?’ I think the only sensible answer is we too, like the Americans, should be undertaking freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
“We should frankly have the gumption to do it ourselves because it is in more of Australia’s strategic interests than it is the US.
“Given the volume of our trade which crosses that region and the fact we’ve kind of fudged this issue over the last 12-18 months, I think it really isn’t good enough.
“So if the alliance prompts us to take greater cognisance of our own responsibilities then that’s a good thing, but we should be really doing it because it’s in our interests rather than simply because it’s an alliance obligation.”
Last week former prime minister Paul Keating told 7.30 it was time Australia took a more independent stance.
“The foreign policy of Australia is basically we have tag-along rights to the US and we conduct our foreign policy, certainly since I left public office in the Howard years, with Iraq, you know, and in the years since, we’ve had more or less a tag-along foreign policy, tagging along to the United States.
“It’s time to cut the tag. Time to get out of it.”
Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Labor would consider its foreign policy over the coming months, and how best to effect any changes within the alliance framework.
Mr Jennings said Senator Wong’s comments were “ill-considered”.
“This is not a referendum on whether we like the president. Our alliance interests run deeper than that,” he said.
“They’ll survive this president and probably the next four or five presidents after him, and therefore because he says some things people don’t like really doesn’t mean we can now say we’re going to up sticks and reconsider our position. Just imagine if the Americans said that about us we’d be in an absolute panic, if we were getting similar comments from senior American politicians.”
Vietnam, China, Malaysia have eyes on the prize
Explore the conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea
|Rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping, the South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region.
At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups – the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.
|Both chains are essentially uninhabitable, but are claimed by no fewer than seven countries, eager to gain control of the vast oil and gas fields below them, as well as some of the region’s best fishing grounds.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made claims to part of the Spratlys based on the internationally recognised Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 hundred nautical miles from a country’s coastline.
|Based on the EEZ, the Philippines has the strongest claim on the Spratlys and their resources, with its EEZ covering much of the area.
However the lure of resources, and prospect of exerting greater control over shipping in the region, means that greater powers are contesting the Philippines’ claims.
|China has made extensive sovereignty claims on both the Spratlys and the Paracels to the north, based largely on historic claims outlined in a map from the middle part of the 20th Century known as the ‘Nine Dash Map’.
Taiwan also makes claims based on the same map, as it was created by the nationalist Kuomintang government, which fled to Taiwan after the communists seized power in China.
|Vietnam also claims the Spratlys and the Paracels as sovereign territory, extending Vietnam’s EEZ across much of the region and bringing it into direct conflict with China.
There have been deadly protests in Vietnam over China’s decision to build an oil rig off the Paracels.
One Chinese worker in Vietnam was killed and a dozen injured in riots targeting Chinese and Taiwanese owned factories, prompting 3,000 Chinese nationals to flee the country.
|EEZ can only be imposed based on boundaries of inhabitable land, and this has prompted all the countries making claims on the region to station personnel, and in some cases build military bases out of the water, to bolster their claim.
Building and protecting these structures has resulted in a series of stand-offs between countries in the region, each with the potential to escalate.
China has been leading the charge with these installations, and has deployed vessels to the region to protect their interests.
Chinese coast guard vessels have used a water cannon on Vietnamese vessels, as well as blockading an island where the Philippines has deployed military personnel.