Australia’s Decision To Join US Coalition To Protect Shipping In Gulf – Analysis


Australia has decided to join the US-led coalition to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and the greater Gulf. Others are hesitating and its joining at this critical juncture may spur some to also join. But its decision to do so is controversial and may have been based in part on misunderstandings and false assumptions.

In response to perceived increasing threats to shipping, the U.S. has proposed “Operation Sentinel”—now being called the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) to “ensure safe passage _ _ throughout the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Oman.”; 

But many prospective participants – including US allies –are wary of joining a US led and coordinated military effort there.  They fear that the U.S. will try to use the effort to press its unilateral “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that includes its attempts to totally block Iranian oil exports and thus achieve its ultimate goal of regime change. At the very least, they realize that Iran will perceive it this way and may react accordingly.

As Rand senior policy analyst Becca Wasser puts it “It is plausible to imagine a scenario where these forces stumble into some type of accidental escalation. While U.S. efforts are intended to deter, Iran may view increased U.S. maritime presence as offensive in nature or as preparation for a larger attack on Iran and respond accordingly”.

In short, potential participants worry that a US-led effort will only escalate tension and the likelihood of conflict, thus further threatening the flow of oil. The U.S. has tried to counter this concern.  US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford addressed the issue directly by claiming “This is not related to the pressure campaign on Iran.  It’s focused on freedom of navigation.”   

Nevertheless, the widespread concern with US intent persists. So far only the U.K., South Korea, Bahrain and now Australia have joined. Several important potential participants like Japan are considering doing so. But Germany and presumably others have flat out declined to participate.

So why did Australia decide to answer the US clarion call? According to Ian Dudgeon of the Australian Institute for International Affairs, the first of two reasons for the decision is that Australia is dependent on “guaranteed freedom of navigation for international shipping for fundamental trade and economic reasons.”  But this is not peculiar to Australia.

Dudgeon and the U.K. allege that Iran has harassed “foreign oil shipping in the Gulf.”  But Iran has denied these allegations.;;

The main concern seems to be Iran’s arrest of the UK flagged tanker Stena Impero.   According to Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “_ _ our action in the Persian Gulf is to uphold int’l maritime rules. Iran said the ship was entering the Strait of Hormuz from the exit point in the South, “disregarding the established procedures that require all entries be made through the Northern pass.”  It also had turned off its GPS tracker and thus posed a danger to other vessels. While violating the International Maritime Organization-approved Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) the tanker allegedly collided with an Iranian fishing boat– although that has not been confirmed.;   

 Like the U.S., Iran has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Iran and Oman whose territorial waters encompass the Strait of Hormuz claim that only the regime of innocent passage—not transit passage– applies there. If the ship was violating the TSS and endangering other vessels in its territorial waters, then Iran may have legal justification for preventing its passage because it was not “innocent”.

There are several problems with this argument including that the tanker was apparently diverted to Iranian territorial waters from Omani territorial waters by Iranian forces.  Perhaps Oman asked Iran to do so. The point is that the incident was not a clear cut violation of freedom of navigation by Iran.

 Dudgeon also asserts that the freedom of navigation issues in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf are similar to those in the South China Sea.

This is simply not so.

Indeed, the situation regarding freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz bears little similarity to that in the South China Sea.  First of all, China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation, and is unlikely to do so in peace time.  China and many other states do object to certain US military activities that they believe do not pay ‘due regard’ to their rights as required by UNCLOS. They think that some of these activities violate UNCLOS provisions regarding their rights to demand prior consent for marine scientific research and to enforce their laws regarding environmental protection. They also believe that some of these military activities are an abuse of rights or  non-peaceful and are thus prohibited by UNCLOS. Such activities include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions (ISR) in waters off their coasts and under their jurisdiction.

Several Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have similar restrictions to those of China on foreign warships operating without their consent in waters under their jurisdiction– including in their territorial seas and in some cases in their exclusive economic zones. They do not support the US conflation of freedom of navigation for commercial vessels with that for warships.

In sum, China’s threat to commercial freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is a self-serving US myth and there is little similarity to the situation in the Strait of Hormuz. 

Dudgeon’s second reason for Australia’s decision – ‘the depth of the alliance relationship with the U.S.’ – may be sufficient in itself. However it carries the risks of mission vagueness and creep as well as the US tendency under President Trump to frequently flip-flop.

But the first reason – defending commercial freedom of navigation just like the US is doing in the South China Sea –is not supported by the facts. The world and Australia are facing a crisis created and driven by the U.S. and abetted by the U.K. in its seizure of an Iranian tanker at the request of  the U.S. Even though the decision has been made, it seems in practice to be rather symbolic. Australia will deploy to the Gulf one RAAF P8 maritime surveillance aircraft late this year and one RAN frigate early next year. But both assets will be part of Operation Manitou, its counter piracy, counter terrorism effort in the Western Indian Ocean. Operations with the |US-led IMSC will be additional. Moreover, Australian Prime Minister ScottMorrison clarified that the commitment is completely separate from the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran and will be limited in time and scope.

Nevertheless Australia will have to live with it and any spillover and knock on effects. It is not clear that Australia has thought through the possible problems that may ensue. For example, if its warships or warplanes are attacked, how will it respond without deepening its involvement in the US created crisis?

But worse, Dudgeon and Australia may have been misled by the U.S. particularly regarding the freedom of navigation issue. If so it would not be the first time–like the reason for invading Iraq. Blind loyalty has its drawbacks.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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