Foreign Minister Bob Carr has rejected the suggestion I made in a Lowy Institute Snapshot yesterday, that the South China Sea is the most unpredictable and dangerous dispute in our region and that Australia should be more active in helping work towards a solution. Here's what Senator Carr told Radio Australia's Stephanie March*:
I don't think it is in Australia's interest to take on for itself a brokering role in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. I don't think that is remotely in our interest, I think we should adhere to the policy we have got of not supporting any one of the nations making competing territorial claims and reminding them all that we want it settled, because we have a stake in it.
I don't for a minute advocate taking sides with any of the parties to the dispute; that would hardly be conducive to our playing a role in working towards a solution. But it does seem like a very timid and low-horizoned approach to a dangerous flashpoint in our region, particularly since in recent years we've had a great deal to say about the crises in Libya and Syria, which can have much less impact on us, and where we can have much less impact in turn. Senator Carr went on to say:
...we think a code of conduct is very useful and that is why we have taken a real interest in the work being done in ASEAN towards a set of ASEAN principals on the disputes registered in the South China Sea.
As I argued in the Snapshot, ASEAN's Code of Conduct is part of the problem. Beijing refuses to deal with any of the Southeast Asian claimants unless they abandon a search for a common position. To think that increasing the pressure on China to accede to an ASEAN-determined Code of Conduct will simply prompt Beijing to roll over and accept is a serious misunderstanding of how China works.
Worse, I have a suspicion that American support for ASEAN's Code of Conduct efforts makes them even less palatable to Beijing. By simply adding its name to the ASEAN-US position, Australia contributes nothing to resolving this dispute, and in fact marginally pushes a solution further away.
Australia has in the past played a key role in helping broker a way out of regional and global stand-offs. One example was the confrontation over Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, with Vietnam and the Soviet Union on one side and ASEAN, China and the US on the other. Foreign Minister Bill Hayden understood that this was a pressing issue for Australia, even if we didn't have a direct involvement. His efforts to bring Vietnam and ASEAN closer together were roundly criticised by ASEAN and China, but paid off in the end.
Australia's work in mobilising the Cairns Group was a creative and highly effective way of pushing the US, Europe and Japan past their logjam towards the conclusion of the Uruguay Round. Clever diplomatic partnering with Indonesia worked wonders in getting agreement for the APEC Leaders Meetings, and a decade later for the Bali Processes on People Smuggling and Terrorism.
Australia has a great deal of diplomatic experience and DNA to draw on. It's not about taking sides or sticking our nose in. It's about being creative when the existing dynamics aren't working, and helping to bring about a solution.
* These quotes went to air on Radio Australia's Connect Asia program this morning, but at time of writing are not yet online.