In 2001, three Australian warships stared down the Chinese Navy in the Taiwan Strait.
China yielded, no drama.
Today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull instead prefers to cut and run in the South China Sea, when all he needs is a little bit of Churchillian resolve.
As history attests, totalitarian regimes need to be reminded on occasion through realpolitik.
The recent deployment of an American aircraft carrier to the region, for example, has been surprisingly effective in tempering Beijing’s quest for power, if only for a moment.
Since Beijing cherry-picked history to support it’s audacious claim to the entire South China Sea, misunderstanding has turned into regional tension which, in turn, has manifested itself into an arms race across the Indo-Pacific.
China has form in attempting to unilaterally challenge de facto sovereignty on the ground over contested areas – it’s borders are littered with numerous territorial disputes, with nearly every neighbouring State, such as India, Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal, facing the constant prospect of Chinese armed incursion.
In the South China Sea, China is simply applying as much sustained pressure as it thinks it can get away with, which is evidently a lot.
Australia should fly the flag in the face of such audacity, if for no other reason than to reassure regional allies that our armed forces stand ready to defend their sovereign borders if needed.
To this end, a Royal Australian Navy Freedom of Navigation Patrol in the South China Sea is well overdue.
The recent commissioning of two Canberra-class LHD’s, arrival of the first Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyer, and the weapon system upgrades to the Anzac-class frigates, has dramatically expanded Australia’s capacity for maritime force projection. This capability is set to further expand as two more Air Warfare Destroyers, nine new global combat frigates, 12 new attack submarines, and 12 new missile-capable Offshore Patrol Vessels are progressively added to the fleet.
Australia is quietly establishing itself as a military force to be reckoned with.
All we need now is a Prime Minister with the mettle to use it.
Instead, by failing to deploy any Australian warships to the South China Sea, the Turnbull Government is missing a golden opportunity to deter China from further unilateral territorial expansion in the region.
Japan, France and Britain have all promised to conduct patrols. Australia has little to lose by joining them in a show of solidarity.
But unless and until the Prime Minister shows any resolve on the matter, Beijing will continue to cajole, harass and intimidate neighbouring states into submission.
This must surely be a Canberra red line.