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Issue #1740      July 20, 2016

Hypocrisy that threatens war

The decision of the arbitral tribunal in The Hague is nothing short of provocative. As is the response of the Australian and US governments. They wasted no time in springing to the defence of the ruling of a tribunal that has found against the People’s Republic of China’s historical claim to a disputed maritime zone in the South China Sea. The authority of the body to determine such a question is doubtful, as is the process used. But that hasn’t stopped the usual supporters of US military and economic interests from lecturing China about respect for “international law” and threatening grave consequences starting with sanctions.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop warned that China will suffer “strong reputational costs” if it doesn’t cave in to the ruling of the arbitral tribunal. Labor’s “defence” spokesperson Stephen Conroy told ABC radio, “China’s been engaged in an aggressive and, at times, bullying performance, and has now been called out by the international court.” He said the Australian Navy and RAAF should be mobilised into the disputed area to challenge China.

Conroy’s bellicosity ignores the fact that China’s presence in the region has never denied freedom of navigation or the flyover rights he claims are under threat. China’s stance has been tested and even provoked by the intrusion of US and Australian military forces. The tensions have escalated in the years following the US military “Pivot” or “Rebalance” to the Indo-Pacific region, implemented in an effort to “contain” China’s influence and to prepare for war with the People’s Republic.


The Philippines brought the dispute over the area containing the Spratly Islands (known in China as the Nansha Islands and the Kalayaan Group in the Philippines) in 2013. It sought a determination under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) even though the convention has no authority over disputed territory, only maritime boundaries. According to its own principles, UNCLOS should only be invoked when the parties to the dispute have exhausted bilateral negotiations and both agree to have the matter determined under its framework.

China has sought to negotiate with the Philippines about the territory and waters in question for decades but no exhaustive discussions have taken place. In a Declaration of Conduct signed by China, the Philippines and other ASEAN Member States in 2002, there was a clear stipulation that “the parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”

On that basis, China and the Philippines chose negotiation as the means to resolve relevant disputes and excluded third-party settlement, including arbitration. The Philippines issued a statement jointly with China as late as 2011 undertaking to resolve disputes through negotiations and consultations. That was before the US “Pivot” began to bite with its policy of more direct confrontation with China. Australia’s first acts in support of this shift in geo-political strategy was to host new bases, including the Marine base in Darwin, and massive increases in military spending.

It is important to note that the new government of the Philippines has expressed a willingness to restart negotiations on the maritime disputes with China in a clear effort to improve bilateral relations. Such level-headed initiatives will be ignored by the imperialist powers.

People in glass houses

China’s claim to the disputed area goes back to a treaty signed in 1898 at the end of the war over the Philippines between the US and Spain. There are several claimants to territory including Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Interest in the zone has heightened since the discovery of oil and gas beneath its waters. Regardless of the merits of the various claims, the important thing to note is that all of the parties have undertaken to resolve their differences through peaceful, bilateral negotiations.

Peaceful negotiations and mutually acceptable outcomes don’t serve US interests. Its strategy involves the heightening of tensions between China and its neighbours and the drawing of countries into a war-fighting alliance against the People’s Republic. All manner of destablising efforts inside and outside of China have been employed in this drive. The determination against China under UNCLOS has been seized upon in order to give the US strategy legitimacy. The imperialist powers will be going to greater than ever lengths to appear to be the upholders of international law following the exposure of gross violations of it in the Chilcot report into the UK’s role in the Iraq War.

There is an old saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This advice has been ignored by the political leaders of the US and Australia on many occasions. The sudden embrace of UNCLOS principles is the height of hypocrisy. The US has refused to ratify the convention for fear of the consequences for territory it occupies around the world. Australia’s behaviour with regard to the convention is notorious.

Australia’s disgraceful record

Australia withdrew from UNCLOS for a period in 2002. At that time it appeared likely that East Timor would achieve independence from Indonesia and lay legitimate claim to the oil and gas resources within its territorial waters. Australia had signed the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty with the Suharto dictatorship and turned a blind eye to the regime’s war on the people of East Timor during which and estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people were killed. That represented a third of the country’s population.

With the Indonesian government’s complicity, the Australian government shifted the maritime boundary from the internationally accepted median line between the countries to the edge of Australia’s continental shelf. This move successfully robbed what would become one of the world’s poorest nations of a considerable source of income. Independent Timor Leste has sought a determination under UNCLOS for the maritime zone. The Australian government knows that the arbitration will only deliver recommendations and cannot move to enforcement. Australian governments of whatever capitalist stripe are going to ignore any adverse finding affecting its favoured oil and gas monopolies.

Capitalism is in crisis and the dominant role of US imperialism in world affairs is in question as never before in post-WW2 history. Its plans for a “new” Middle East are meeting strong resistance and its push to the east against Russia is losing support. Unfortunately for the people of our region, it appears US imperialism will view the objective of its “Pivot” to the Indo-Pacific as its most attractive option. Australia, which hosts US bases and offers “interoperability” with its growing military forces, is key to this war-fighting capacity against China. It is of paramount interest to the people of Australia to withdraw from this reckless adventure and to work towards relations based on peace and mutual benefit with differences settled through negotiations not war.

Next article – Editorial – On war

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