The 2020s have gotten off to a rough start as China’s increasingly assertive position and ambitions in the South China Sea have drawn attention from yet another regional power: Indonesia, which is joining with neighbours to push back against China’s encroachment and disregard for international law and sovereignty.
China’s pursuit of regional primacy has prompted the nation to pursue the development of an integrated system of natural and man-made island fortresses.
Dominating and controlling foreign access to the South China Sea through which approximately US$5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes annually serves as a potent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) system as a buffer for expanding China’s designs for south-east Asia.
The growing deployment and respective capabilities of China’s armed forces, particularly the force projection capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), have prompted increased concern from established regional powers, including Japan, Korea and Australia.
Additionally, smaller regional nations with competing territorial claims and ancient fears of Chinese expansion, namely Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, have all raised growing concerns about China’s militarisation and reclamation programs in the South China Sea.
In response, the US announced its ‘pivot’ towards the Indo-Pacific under the former Obama administration in 2013 moving to reassure regional US allies like Australia, Japan and emerging allies like Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam that the pre-eminent global power was committed to the enduring freedom and stability of the region.
Despite these early reassurances and renewed investment in the strategic capabilities of the US military under the Trump administration – the global responsibilities of the US, particularly in the Middle East, and the potential for conflict with Iran has once again drawn the attention of the US, providing an opportunity for China to enhance its military presence in the South China Sea.
Recently, Indonesia has joined a growing coalition of regional nations, each with their own interests in the South China Sea to push back against an increasingly assertive China and its designs for regional dominance.
This move by Australia's neighbour comes following a year of mounting tensions between Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines as they seek to consolidate their own territorial holdings and the sovereignty of their own economic exclusion zones (EEZs) and national sovereignty.
Maximising a distracted, overstretched US
China has actively sought to counter traditional American and allied capabilities in both the South China Sea and the broader Indo-Pacific.
This has included developing traditional power projection capabilities like aircraft carrier strike groups, increasingly capable fleets of nuclear and conventional powered attack and ballistic missile submarines, upgraded strategic bomber forces, highly capable fighter aircraft, and advanced ballistic and cruise missile systems.
Each of these platforms serves as an integral component within China’s rapidly developing ‘system of systems’ and broader joint power projection and A2/AD networks – this balance of traditional force structures, supported by asymmetric platforms, has served as a potent deterrent in the region.
As the US and other major allies continue to face domestic and other global challenges, the rising nations of the Indo-Pacific have begun pushing back against China's mounting militarisation of the South China Sea – standing resolute despite a distracted US.
Indonesia deploys warships, echoing the actions of SE Asian neighbours
Recognising this, Indonesia has joined its regional partners to deploy a fleet of eight naval assets to the Natuna Islands following the presence of China's 'civilian' fishing fleets, violating Indonesia's EEZ and the national sovereignty of Indonesia.
Indonesia's response to the presence of China and its growing antagonism towards the South China Sea adjacent nations echoes similar deployments made by the likes of Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which have had a series of confrontations with China in the region.
Throughout the later half of the 2010s, Vietnam's coast guard stood nose-to-nose against much larger Chinese vessels over the disputed Vanguard Bank oil and gas fields.
The Philippines, while often mercurial in its nature concerning international relationships under President Rodrigo Duterte, has frequently sought to chart a middle path between China and the US, which has often led to Filipino naval and coast guard vessels patrolling and confronting Chinese vessels within their own EEZ.
Linchpin of the Indo-Pacific: The South China Sea
Former head of the Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade departments, Dennis Richardson, called for Australia to conduct an increasing number of 'freedom-of-navigation' operations in the region, including directly confronting Beijing's island fortresses within the 12-nautical-mile boundary of the disputed islands.
Mr Richardson reportedly explained to Paul Malley of The Australian that the nation and Navy should "not be afraid to sail within 12 nautical miles of the man-made atolls that China has constructed in the South China Sea and which Beijing claims as territorial islands — a claim not recognised under international law".
"These so-called freedom-of-navigation exercises could be conducted discretely and with little or no fanfare so as not to gratuitously antagonise China, an outcome Australian policy-makers have been eager to avoid, Mr Richardson says," Malley expanded.
Nevertheless, Australia has moved to support enduring US-led freedom of navigation patrols throughout the region as part of Operation GATEWAY, which is Australia's commitment to preserving regional security and stability in south-east Asia – with a specific focus on both the north Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Australia's renewed and expanded role in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea in particular and Richardson's calls for greater Australian boldness was recently reinforced by the University of Sydney-based US Strategic Studies Centre (USSC) in a paper titled Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific, which makes a series of powerful recommendations for Australia furthering the level of interoperability between Australian and allied militaries.
Despite these calls, the question becomes, what platforms and crew is the Royal Australian Navy going to pressure into increased operational tempo, dramatically impacting the service life, operational effectiveness of the vessels and crew to play a greater role in the South China Sea?
Dr Malcolm Davis of ASPI sumarised the predicament perfectly: "We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before, and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us.
"In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders."
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.