September 24th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Shorten takes low road to defeat marriage plebiscite

CANBERRA OBSERVED Plebiscite debate will be civil despite "Shrill" Bill

ENVIRONMENT More pseudo science from climate

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Memo to Shorten, Wong: LGBTIs don't want it

U.S. POLITICS Trumping the elites like shooting fish in a barrel

SOCIAL POLICY Guidelines turn shows of displeasure into "violence"

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong voters reject heavy-handed Beijing

EUTHANASIA Senators, take your marks for the race to the bottom

PHILOSOPHY Life: a miracle by any reasonable calculation

MILITARY HISTORY The capture of the old German lines at Pozieres

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS South China Sea powder keg may blow anytime

MUSIC Messiaen reaches to where the shadow falls

CINEMA Atonement for blood debts: Blood Father

BOOK REVIEW Freedom as a weapon to destroy freedom

BOOK REVIEW There and back again


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South China Sea powder keg may blow anytime

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, September 24, 2016

The South China Sea is caught in a disturbing web of conflicting claims from which escape may be impossible without armed conflict. This tar baby, a tangle of claims and counterclaims, could suddenly blow up into a major international crisis.

The late A.J.P. Taylor, the noted British historian, argued that World War I was a random “war by timetable” because the major powers were locked into mobilisation of their troops by intricate railway timetables, leading to a continent-wide war (A.J.P. Taylor. War by Timetable: How the First World War Began. Macdonald, London, 1969).

Similarly, the two major protagonists in the South China Sea – the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – may be in danger of igniting a catastrophic “accidental war”. For the PRC, the South China Sea imbroglio is more than a matter of “face”. If the PRC has its way, Beijing’s navy will control most of Asia’s sea lines of communication.


Australia and other interested parties such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC) want the South China Sea imbroglio to be resolved according to international law. Rule-governed interaction reduces the potential for armed conflict.

 After World War I, the League of Nations came into being with the intention of resolving international conflicts according to rule-governed behaviour. The League of Nations was crippled from the start by the refusal of the United States Senate to sanction America’s participation in the league. In part, this could be put down to the bloody-minded refusal of the U.S. Congress to accommodate President Woodrow Wilson, who had antagonised the legislative branch of the U.S. government.

The U.S., having put hundreds of thousands of “Doughboys” (later called GIs) into France in the final days of World War I, did not want to be entangled in Europe’s age-old quarrels and retreated into isolationism. The U.S. was never actually “an Ally” and Wilson exhausted himself attempting to run the Versailles Armistice talks single-handedly. Had he left matters in the hands of the very capable and indeed, indispensible, Colonel Edward House, in all likelihood matters would have been resolved more fairly.

The League of Nations proved incapable of preventing Europe from plunging headfirst into another war. Even before World War II was won, the Allies, led by the U.S. and Britain, began preparing for a new international organisation that would more realistically recognise the role the Great Powers played in international relations. The aim was to replace the rule of war by the rule of law.

The most crucial decision-making power, the United Nations Security Council, would have five permanent members, a sort of Congress of Victors: The United States, the Soviet Union, the Republic of China, the United Kingdom and France, each capable of exercising a veto over Security Council resolutions.

The intention of resolving disputes by rule-governed behaviour was attractive to nations, such as Australia, that lacked the military clout of the Big Five. Australia had a population of 8 million at the end of World War II. Our relatively small population alarmed Arthur Calwell, who was Minister for Immigration in the Chifley government from 1945 to 1949. For Arthur Calwell, it was a matter of “populate or perish”.

The United Nations did not prevent all wars, but it did keep a conduit open between the Western powers and the Eastern Bloc. The PRC did not join the Security Council until 1971, when it took the China seat at the United Nations, displacing the Republic of China on Taiwan. The ROC refused to negotiate on some form of United Nations representation and thus has no form of UN membership. It has had observer status at the World Health Assembly.

The PRC, which exercises a de facto right of veto in United Nations organisations, has not lived up to its promise to allow Taiwan to create “diplomatic space” by being admitted to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) instead of just being a “guest”. Taiwan has good practical reasons for seeking membership of ICAO, not least its thriving commercial aviation sector and burgeoning tourism industry.

As a sweetener in the thawing of frigid relations across the Taiwan Strait after the Kuomintang’s President Ma Ying-jeou supplanted the Democratic Progressive Party’s independence-leaning Chen Shui-bian, the PRC said it would allow the ROC some diplomatic “breathing space”. The ROC on Taiwan has official ties with 21 United Nations member states, as well as with the Holy See. “The Allies”, as nations with formal diplomatic ties are known, are mainly small and impoverished nations in the Pacific, Africa and Latin America.

The ROC regards any move by the PRC to steal its official diplomatic partners very seriously. Taiwan, does, however, have robust unofficial ties with every significant nation on Earth, including Australia. New ROC President Tsai Ing-wen says she wishes to maintain the status quo between Taiwan and China.

Australia and Taiwan share a policy of solving disputes in the South China Sea peacefully, as does ASEAN. This July, ASEAN issued a watered-down declaration – which failed to mention China’s rejection of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruling. Cambodia, China’s most reliable ally in South-East Asia, acted as a spoiler on China’s behalf, blocking a stronger ASEAN declaration. ASEAN does not condone militarisation of the South China Sea.

China has been strengthening its position by building “islands” on reefs in the South China Sea. The PRC is believed to be courting Timor-Leste (East Timor) and Papua New Guinea (PNG) with the ultimate aim of establishing naval bases there. China has much experience in manipulating small, weak and impoverished nations to achieve its ends. If China does establish naval bases in Timor-Leste and PNG, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy would be capable of cutting Australia’s sea lines of communications to the north-west and the north-east. These sea lines account for most of Australia’s sea-borne trade.

China has signaled that it has no intention of embracing the rulings of international tribunals when it does not suit it. It rejected the UNCLOS arbitration decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the International Court of Justice at The Hague in the case brought by the Philippines against China. China continues to claim sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, citing the “nine-dash line” formula, even though the “nine dash line” claim predates the victory by Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949. In fact, the “nine-dash line” was the creation of the ROC when it was government of all China – a claim which Taiwan has yet to renounce.

Although the case was brought by the Philippines against China, the real loser – should the ruling be implemented – is Taiwan. The decision had the effect of downgrading Taiwan’s Taiping Island to a “rock”. Under UNCLOS, “islands” and “rocks” are strictly defined. An “island” is defined as a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide. “Rocks” cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own. (Taiping Island: An Island or a Rock under UNCLOS? Yann-hui Song. Academia Sinica, Taipei, 2015).

Taiping Island is the largest island in the Spratly group. Taiping Dao can be literally translated as “Peace Island”. In English, it is also called Itu Abu, or Abu Island. In the Philippines’ national language, Tagalog, it is known as Ligao, and in Vietnamese as Dao Ba Binh.

It is the only island in the Spratlys to have its own supply of fresh water. The island’s inhabitants raise chickens and goats, grow vegetables and cultivate tree crops. Taiping Island is capable of sustaining more than 150 people. Facilities include a hospital, an airstrip and a helicopter pad. One would be reasonable in assuming that this is an island. The Permanent Court of Arbitration has, however, defined it as a “rock”.

Taiwan has a legitimate complaint. As it is not a member of the United Nations, nor of UNCLOS, it was not represented at the arbitration hearing in The Hague, yet it is the most directly affected by the downgrading of Taiping Island to a “rock”.

Under UNCLOS, a “rock” has a 12 nautical mile limit. An “island” has a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The EEZ means that the sovereign power has a right to all marine resources, including fish, plus undersea resources such as oil and gas, which Taiping Island may – or may not – have.

The former occupying power, Japan, renounced all rights to the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea in the 1951 San Francisco Treaty of Peace and the 1952 Treaty of Peace between the Republic of China on Taiwan and Japan. Since 1956, Taiping Island has been continuously administered by the ROC. In recent years, administration has been in the hands of the ROC Coast Guard.

The ROC Coast Guard is a civilian law enforcement agency responsible directly the ROC Executive Yuan (Cabinet). The Coast Guard is responsible for administering the territorial waters of the ROC, including Taiping Island.

In times of emergency, the Coast Guard may be incorporated into the ROC armed forces. In normal times, however, it functions as a law enforcement agency, similar to a maritime police force. This arrangement is similar to the conventions governing the U.S. Coast Guard.

The deployment of the Coast Guard to Taiping Island indicates that Taiwan regards the administration of the island as an internal matter and that it will defend its claims through non-violent means. Taiwan is a major player in the South China Sea. It will not imitate China’s “island building”, which is illegal under UNCLOS.

The designation of Taiping Island as a “rock” by the court of arbitration is odd, as Taiping Island is clearly capable of supporting a permanent population of several hundred inhabitants. Incidentally, China will use the dispute over Taiping Island to drive a wedge between Taiwan and the Philippines. The Philippines covets the rich fishing grounds in the Taiping Island EEZ, which Taiwan’s politically powerful long-range fishing fleet regards as its own patch.

High-level sources in Taiwan say that Taiwan will not surrender Taiping Island without a fight. The U.S. “pivot” to Asia will mean that competition for dominance in the South China Sea will intensify. China will build influence with ASEAN through its links with Cambodia and other allies.

Some analysts believe that China will accept a U.S. role as a “pacifier”, while top-level U.S. officials have stressed that the U.S. is, and will remain, a Pacific power. The U.S. has major bases in Hawaii, plus at Yokohama and Okinawa in Japan, among others.

The PLA Navy is as yet untested in major conflicts, but acquisition of the Russian-made Sunburn supersonic wave-skimming anti-ship missile means that U.S. aircraft carriers are vulnerable. The potential loss of a U.S. capital ship and its crew of some 6,000 men and women would fan the flames of conflict.

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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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