By Liu Rui
As Australian media reported of late, six Australian naval ships carrying 1,200 personnel have sailed toward the South China Sea. It remains unclear how far the ships have moved into the disputed sea area. The fleet has departed for "Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017" with stops at Japan, South Korea and the Philippines in a biggest military operation of its kind for at least three decades.
With only about 10,000 personnel, the three-month military exercises and visits by the Australian Navy is rather impressive in terms of scale, scope, preparation and duration. More interested in peripheral security than the South China Sea, Australia used to be more focused on stopping refugee and migrant smuggling. When it used military forces in neighboring or far away regions, it was to play second fiddle to the US and to posture. Military exercises and visits this time, however, are voluntary and unusual in history, especially since the end of the Cold War.
Obviously, by doing so Australia wishes to show off its strengths, enhance ties with neighbors and then play a bigger role in regional security. It used to position itself as a middle power, thus not quite independent in security affairs. But now its role in international affairs has changed. After US President Donald Trump took office, the US has failed to play an active role in security affairs in the Asia-Pacific or East Asia, and may even withdraw in self-interest. If America does withdraw, who will safeguard regional security?
Strategists in Australia believe a stronger China brings uncertainties to the region. Therefore, Canberra hopes neighboring countries will come together and play a collective role. Though in no way can it fill America's shoes, Australia still intends to get neighboring countries on board and act as a "sub chief." This was confirmed by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this year when he said "Big fish eat small fish and small fish eat shrimps" to describe the Asia-Pacific order, barely concealing Australia's intention of becoming spokesperson of "small fish" and "shrimps."
Australia wants independence even from the US and is prepared to act alone if the US is not present. In fact, it has been wooing Japan and India and seeking a bigger role in ASEAN. Australia's distrust of China has deepened and it has stepped up vigilance after China's island construction in the South China Sea. It pays more attention to the area through which most of its trade passes.
Moreover, the contentious nature of the South China Sea propels Australia to step up its presence.
Therefore, the military exercise by the Australian Navy, though unusual, is not unexpected. Once the news came out, many took it as an act against China. Indeed, Australia is on alert facing an increasingly powerful China, but ties have not become antagonistic. Australia has never given up on enhancing military ties with China and even acts as the bridge between Beijing and the US by organizing joint military exercises among the three.
There is no doubt that Australia attempts to play a bigger role in the region. What matters is whether its role will be constructive. In particular, it needs to practice prudence and avoid being mired in the muddy waters of disputed sea areas such as the South and East China Sea.
Australia has always claimed it does not have a stance on construction in the South China Sea and it should remain neutral instead of ganging up with other countries.
After all, Australia lies outside the South and East China Sea.
The author is a research fellow at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences.