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The Australian National University

Managing tensions in the South China Sea

Academic panel on the South China Sea
Co-hosted by the National Security College and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, 9 April 2015

Introductory remarks by the Head of the National Security College, Professor Rory Medcalf

We acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, and pay our respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal people past and present.

Colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to the national security college in the Crawford School, here at the Australian National University. A particular welcome to our colleagues and collaborators in this event, from the strategic and defence studies Centre in the Coral Bell School, also at ANU.

I'm especially pleased to welcome some of our distinguished guests, notably the ambassadors of the Philippines and Norway, and senior representatives from the diplomatic missions of the United States, Indonesia, The Phillipines, Vietnam, France, Singapore and Russia– an indication of the global importance of the security issue we are here discussed tonight.

The discussion we will shortly have about the security challenges in the South China Sea is in part a reflection on the colleges’ evolving mission, not only as a training institution for the Australian national security community, but as a platform for a better standard of policy debate and policy understanding right across the spectrum of security issues.

And we can't avoid the reality that the South China Sea is, ultimately, an Australian national security issue.

That is for multiple reasons.  Our security ultimately depends on a rules-based regional order, and any damage to that order through coercion or risk-taking or unilateral assertiveness as we have seen in these contested waters in recent years, equates with damage to our interests.

Second, our vital lifelines, our trade routes to and from our top three trading partners, China, Japan and South Korea, run through those waters.

Third, the tensions in the South China Sea are testing American resolve, credibility and diplomatic dexterity – and America is our ally, and therefore these are tests for us too.

Fourth, as the region comes to terms with how to incorporate a powerful China's legitimate interests, the way China behaves when its interests brush up against those of small powers provides a test-case for us all to watch very, very closely.

And fifth, if tensions in these waters escalate to conflict, we will not be able to pretend it's not our business. It will affect our interests, no matter what.

This evening's discussion is enormously timely. Just last week, not far from here, the South China Sea made global headlines when the commander of the US Pacific fleet, Admiral Harry Harris, warned of the perils around China's so-called great wall of sand. That is the rapid program of island building, including potential military infrastructure, that is changing facts in the water and building a new status quo in waters that China contests with the Philippines and Vietnam.

It is a pity that the negotiation of a code of conduct to manage the tensions and disputes seems to be proceeding with rather less haste than the work of those efficient Chinese bulldozer drivers and dredge operators.

Now the Admiral’s speech could perhaps have been more delicately worded, but in my view his point was a reasonable one, and not intrinsically dangerous or escalatory as some observers have been quoted as describing it. A similar point had previously been alluded to by Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russell, and is now being repeated perhaps more diplomatically by Defense Secretary Ash Carter on his visit to the region.

The island-building is a new kind of provocation, to which nobody yet has a credible response.

So, tonight's event is deeply relevant, and my predecessor at the college, and his team, had good prescience and judgment in commissioning the research project which led us to this point.  This is, after all, in part a book launch for an excellent collection of chapters by some leading experts in the field, looking at political, legal and regional perspectives on the South China Sea dispute. I recommend the book published by Routledge and its predecessor occasional paper published by us.

Shortly we will hear brief presentations from the editors of the book, Dr Leszek Buszynski and Associate Professor Chris Roberts, as well as from one of the contributors, Associate Professor Brendan Taylor, head of SDSC. Their areas of focus will include the perspectives of Vietnam and the Philippines – countries whose views must be counted as strongly held, just as those of China are.

I should give apologies at this point from my colleague Professor Michael Wesley, head of the Coral Bell School and another of the book's authors, who is unable to be with us this evening. I should note also that the book contains a particularly insightful chapter from Professor Don Rothwell, head of school at the ANU College of Law, and I look forward to our conducting a future event focussed more squarely on the legal aspects of this issue, including the Philippines case for arbitration and China's own interpretation of the law of the sea.

To, conclude my opening remarks, I would like us all to think about five questions:

  • What are the security risks arising from continued tensions in the South China Sea?
  • What are the contours of a possible resolution to the disputes?
  • Is resolution a realistic option?
  • Do dispute management and confidence building measures comprise a more feasible set of options for preventing conflict and how these work?

  • And finally, what options does the international community have if the present situation - including the island building – continues?

After the presentations, I look forward to moderating discussion on these and other questions, and I will invite your contributions.


Updated:  16 April 2015/ Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/ Page Contact:  Web administrator, National Security College