17 December 2019
By Dr Mark Harrison
The South China Sea dispute is an important dimension of regional military competition.
China claims ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the entire region within its so-called ‘nine dash line’, even though this claim was refuted by the UN’s Arbitral Tribunal in July 2016.
A key concern for the US and its regional allies, including Australia, is island building and the militarisation of these artificial structures which could then host air and naval forces.
Both the US and Australia feel that an important requirement is to maintain the freedom of navigation of the seas, and more fundamentally, ensure the rules-based international order is protected such that the regional status quo is not altered through military coercion by one party against another.
Accordingly, the US has undertaken ‘freedom of navigation operations’ (FONOPs) to assert their right to sail through international waters. Australia is yet to commit to undertaking FONOPs, but may come under increasing pressure to undertake a FONOP, either independently or alongside the US, and this represents a looming policy dilemma for the government.