Rocky relations

Japanese nationalists protest Chinese claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Photo by AFP.
03 November 2014
Japanese nationalists protest Chinese claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Photo by AFP.

A new report by La Trobe Asia and ANU experts warns that Australia could be drawn into a conflict in the East China Sea due to US alliance and deepening security ties with Japan.

As a dispute over an uninhabited bunch of rocks in the East China Sea ratchets up, the prospect of a resulting Sino-Japanese conflict cannot be taken lightly by Australia.

That’s the stark message behind a new report which looks at the circumstances under which a full-scale conflict between Japan and China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands could occur, and whether Australia would be dragged into such a fight.

The report takes into account Australia’s commitment to the ANZUS treaty, which binds Australia and the US to cooperate on defence matters in the Pacific Ocean area.

Co-authored by Professor Nick Bisley from La Trobe Asia and Professor Brendan Taylor from the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Conflict in the East China Sea: would ANZUS apply?, argues that conflict in the region is a very real risk.

“It is something that we think is very plausible,” said Professor Bisley during the report’s launch at ANU on Monday. “This is not an imaginary risk.”

And the risk should be high on Australia’s agenda warn the authors.

Economically, three of our four leading trading partners are located in Northeast Asia, while sea lanes vital to Australian trade run through the waters of the East China Sea.

The US also maintains forward military bases in the area.

Professor Bisley pointed out that if a conflict occurred between China and Japan, it’s likely the US would send forces to support Japan. Barack Obama is the first US president to state that America would support Japan in a clash over the Senkaku islands.

If America in turn expected Australian involvement, it would be very difficult to remain on the sidelines, the report’s authors say.

They describe the US-Australia alliance not as the binding wording of the ANZUS treaty but the “habits of mind” and expectations that have built up between both countries since World War 2.

Ties between Australia and Japan have also grown stronger over the last 12 months, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting Canberra in July.

The paper doesn’t rule out the possibility of Japan also requesting assistance from Australia in the event of a conflict in the East China Sea.

“For me a deeper concern is less the deepening of the relationship between the US and Australia, and more the, in some ways, alarming deepening of the Australia-Japan relationship, particularly over the last 12 months,” said Professor Taylor.     

“I think that relationship, in a very quiet and steady way, is pretty close now to being credibly defined as being an alliance relationship. In fact, many in Tokyo are now describing it as a de-facto alliance.”

With the prospect so high, the report’s analysis includes three hypothetical conflict scenarios deemed most likely to occur. From there the possibility of Australia being drawn into the conflict is examined.

Recommendations for managing the risk, including Canberra maintaining “maximum freedom of policy manoeuvre” and having frank conversations with Tokyo about the potential merits of Beijing’s claims to the islands, are also given.

Conflict in the East China Sea: would ANZUS apply?, is a joint collaboration between the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at UTS, La Trobe Asia, and the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

It was launched by former Australia foreign affairs minister and ACRI Director, the Hon Bob Carr.

Listen to a panel discussion from the report’s launch in the player below.



Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team