In a doorstop interview with journalists in Washington DC this week Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was asked to clarify Australia's position on the South China Sea.
She was forthright in her response. For me this was the most interesting part:
So how is this position consistent with Australia's approach to the Timor Sea?
1. Resolving Peacefully? ... yes. No one has brought their guns to town!
2. Negotiating as long as the outcome is in accordance with international law? ... well this remains to be seen.
It appears that negotiations are now taking place facilitated by the Conciliation Commission - BUT- will the outcome be in accordance with international law? Will Australia agree to a boundary that respects all of Timor-Leste's entitlements as provided for under UNCLOS? One that follows the three step approach to boundary delimitation accepted in case law?
3. Or resort to arbitration? ... not possible. Bishop recommends this in the South China Sea knowing full well that Australia denies East Timor this option because of its 2002 withdrawal from jurisdiction. So this is a blatant case of 'do as I say ... not as I do". In other words - hypocrisy. Australia was dragged unwillingly into the Compulsory Conciliation [non binding] now underway. It refuses to participate the arbitration process [binding] that it suggests others use to resolve their disputes.
If there is to be consistency in Australia's talk on the South China and its actions in the Timor Sea it should:
1. negotiate a border entirely consistent with the three step approach developed by case law which uses the middle line as a starting point.
2. not entertain wheeling and dealing over Greater Sunrise Development
3. agree to submit to international arbitration if the current negotiations fail to reach an agreement by the September finish of the Conciliation Commission.
It is time for the Government of Australia to step up and show some consistency in the position regarding the South China Sea and their actions in the Timor Sea. If we are keen to be seen as a supporter of international law - then we must eliminate the gap between our words and actions.