John Howard has hardened his position on the South China Sea, predicting Australia would eventually join US-led freedom-of-navigation exercises to “hold the ring” against Chinese expansion.
The former prime minister also endorsed US President Donald Trump’s critique of EU defence spending, accusing it of “bludging” off the US “for decades”.
Speaking at an Institute of Public Affairs event alongside former Abbott government national security adviser Andrew Shearer, he said China had “violated the international rules-based order” and Australia should be “willing” to be part of any pushback.
“I think this country should be ready at some point, if circumstances are appropriate, and that would be a matter of judgment of the government at the time, to be involved in freedom-of-navigation operations. I think we should be willing to be part of that. I can’t think of any alternative to it,” Mr Howard said.
“If the circumstances were appropriate (it) would be an operation that was regarded as necessary to ‘hold the ring’ in the area, and involving the United States and others.”
He said it was not in “anyone’s interest” to bring on a major confrontation in the South China Sea, but China will not give up an inch of territory it had gained.
“I don’t believe the Chinese are wanting to have a major scrap over the issue but they’re not going to give up anything they have achieved — and they have achieved an enormous amount.”
When previously asked about the role of the Australian navy in any freedom-of-navigation patrols, Mr Howard took a neutral position and urged patience.
“My general proposition is to defend freedom of navigation … Now how you do it, and what constitutes a defence of freedom of navigation, is a matter of argument, and I’ll leave that to the current experts,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
In response to questions from The Australian, Mr Howard agreed the comments this week were probably his strongest forecast on political movements in relation to the South China Sea.
He said we should not feel compelled to rush Australian participation but we must expect at some stage to become involved in an operation with the US to enforce The Hague ruling.
The US conducts exercises within a 12-nautical-mile zone around Chinese-built islands to enforce a ruling by an international court against China’s claims to the territories.
On August 10, a US Navy warship sailed within 12NM of Chinese-built Mischief Reef, leading to Chinese protests.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said Australia is yet to commit to sailing that close to the islands, which would escalate tensions.
Australian defence experts are divided over the merits of Australian involvement. Former Defence Force chief Sir Angus Houston has said it would not be a good idea as it would provoke a military response, while former Defence Department head Dennis Richardson said it could be a good idea if done in a non-provocative way.
Some in the Coalition — including Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz — have gone against the party line and advocated confronting China.
Mr Howard said China had made gains in Asia under the Obama administration.
“A large part of that was achieved during a period of years when the United States was unwilling to assert itself internationally not only in Asia but also in Europe, and that period has ended with the election of the new administration,” he said.
South East Asian nations are at various stages of arguing with China over the sea or moving towards deals with the superpower.
By PRIMROSE RIORDAN