In recent years, China has taken a dim view of Australian naval and air activities in the South China Sea. Australia is considered an intruder, an external power that has no right to deploy into the area. But the fact is that Australian units have operated regularly, if not continuously, in the South China Sea and its surrounds for more than a century. They have been there because their activities were and are considered to contribute to the safety and security of the region, on which Australia’s own security has long depended.
Ironically, in their first deployments during World War I under the control of the commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy on what was termed the China Station, ships of the Royal Australian Navy were chasing Americans. They were trying to stop the movement of agents and arms into Malaya, Singapore and India by German-American groups using the Philippines as a conduit. Australian units functioned in some ways as shock troops for the British admiral, taking a harder line against American flag vessels than might have been possible for RN ships.
Because of official American embarrassment over the activities of the subversive groups, British apologies about the overenthusiasm of Australian officers, “might almost have become an expedient by which British and US officials were able to excuse, if not officially overlook, some transgressions.”
The 1920s saw occasional Australian visits, such as that of the cruiser Brisbane, which conducted an exchange deployment on the China Station in 1925, visiting Malaya, Japan and China. One member of Brisbane’s crew distinguished himself in rescue operations after a landslide in Hong Kong.
“The creation of the Far East Strategic Reserve brought operational commitments to the defence of Southeast Asia that saw the continuous deployment of RAN ships to the region for many years.”
In December 1941, the Australian destroyer Vampire was one of the escorts for the ill-fated Royal Navy ships Prince of Wales and Repulse when they were sunk by land-based Japanese naval aircraft in the South China Sea. The Vampire rescued many of the survivors and returned them to Singapore. The Royal Australian Air Force’s Malaya-based 453 Squadron Buffalo fighters had been called too late to provide cover. In contrast, RAAF 1 Squadron’s Hudson bombers had some success over the South China Sea with the destruction of a Japanese transport ship in an invasion convoy, although the squadron soon lost most of its aircraft in Japanese raids on Kota Bahru airfield.
On January 26, 1942, accompanied by the British destroyer Thanet, the Vampire fought a sharp night action in the South China Sea against the escorts of a Japanese invasion convoy off the Malayan east-coast port of Endau. The Vampire survived the battle against a much superior force; the Thanet did not.
In June 1945, RAN units were back in the South China Sea, covering the invasion of Brunei by providing gunfire support, amphibious transport and precursor surveys for the Australian troops who went ashore there. Some months before, RAAF aircraft had played an important part in hindering Japanese naval operations in the weeks leading up to the Battle of Leyte Gulf by seeding aerial mines outside the Japanese main-fleet anchorage in Brunei Bay.
In the years following the end of World War II, Australia worked closely with the United Kingdom and New Zealand to contribute to the defence of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei under the ANZAM agreement. The creation of the Far East Strategic Reserve in 1955 brought operational commitments to the defence of Southeast Asia that saw the continuous deployment of two frigates or destroyers and the annual visit of an RAN carrier task group to the region for many years.
Much of the ships’ time was spent in the South China Sea, operating with the British Eastern Fleet and contributing to coastal security patrols. They were also involved in increasingly sophisticated SEATO naval exercises, in which RAAF maritime patrol aircraft took part as well. Going “Up Top” became a central part of the RAN’s routine—and a frequent event for many RAAF force elements, not to mention the fighter squadrons permanently based at Butterworth and in Singapore.
Between 1964 and 1966, during the Indonesia–Malaysia Confrontation, or Konfrontasi, Australian escorts and coastal minesweepers had a leading role in anti-infiltration patrols. Australia also played a key part in the development of the Royal Malaysian Navy with the provision of loan personnel (including the RMN’s commander from 1960 until 1967) and material support. After 1967, training places were provided to the armed forces of the newly independent Singapore.
“Australia’s security was, is and will continue to be closely associated with the security of maritime Southeast Asia.”
Following Britain’s decision to withdraw from east of Suez, through a series of iterations Australia’s primary defence contribution moved into the framework of the Five Power Defence Arrangements in 1971. Although the strategic situation that created the FPDA has changed dramatically since that time, their existence has helped maintain defence links between Malaysia and Singapore, as well as provide confirmation of Australia’s continuing interest. An Australian two-star RAAF officer commands the Integrated Air Defence System, supported by a multinational staff.
Australian aircraft continue to transit through the Royal Malaysian Air Force base at Butterworth. Notably, the Operation Gateway patrols by RAAF maritime patrol aircraft operating from Butterworth, which began in 1981, continue to this day. They once had a Cold War focus on tracking submarines but have evolved into a much wider maritime security effort in Southeast Asian waters, including the South China Sea, that makes a significant contribution to the maritime awareness of Malaysia in particular. The initiation of the Bersama Lima series of exercises in 2011 and of the Bersama Shield series in 2012 have helped take maritime interoperability within the FPDA to new levels.
Since 2017, the annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour deployments have involved Australian task groups spending significant time in and around the South China Sea. Although Covid-19 restrictions have affected such deployments, they did not prevent the frigate Parramatta from operating with an American carrier battle group in the region in April 2020, or a RAN task group’s involvement in trilateral exercises with Japan and the US in the Philippine Sea in July—or a further trilateral exercise in the South China Sea in October including the frigate Arunta.
Australia’s South China Sea presence is not all about the major powers, something highlighted by the visit of the submarine Dechaineux to Brunei in March 2020. Over the past century, Australia’s activities in the South China Sea have reflected the reality that it is no “external” state. Australia’s security was, is and will continue to be closely associated with the security of maritime Southeast Asia. Given that Darwin is 450 kilometres closer to Singapore than the latter is to Shanghai, this could hardly be otherwise.
James Goldrick served as a rear admiral in the Royal Australian Navy, has published widely on naval issues and now has appointments at UNSW Canberra, the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and ANCORS (Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security).