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Why Ukraine matters to Australia? The answer is China

By Peter Hendy - posted Wednesday, 23 April 2014

As a member of the Government's Foreign Affairs Policy Committee I attended a discussion recently with the Ukrainian Consul-General in Australia. It was a closed meeting so I can reveal little of the discussion. Suffice it to say that the urgent concern for his country is that the recent annexation of the Crimean peninsula may within days be followed by an invasion of the remainder of their country by Russia.

The recent turmoil in Ukraine and Russia's bullying approach is well known and I will not go over it again in detail. I am more interested in discussing the international communities' reaction. Suffice it to say that on 22 February Ukraine's parliament deposed their president, Victor Yanukovich, and within a few days pro-Russian military forces began occupying the Crimea and after a world-record-breaking plebiscite, in terms of speed, this region was reabsorbed into Russia on 17 March.

A large number of press releases from world capitals condemning the naked aggression of Russia followed. The United Nations Security Council resolution reflecting that anger didn't pass as it was vetoed by Russia. Interestingly China abstained. As a member of the Security Council for 2013-15 Australia rightfully voted for the resolution. Subsequently on 27 March the UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution declaring the Russian-backed referendum invalid, with 100 nations in favour, 11 voting against, and 58 abstentions. Russia's supporters included those bastions of democracy and the rule of law Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Belarus, and Bolivia. Interestingly China again abstained.


The United States has expressed its genuine concern about developments. President Obama has condemned Russia's actions and imposed sanctions in the form of travel and economic bans on certain key personnel in Russian President Vladimir Putin's government. Australia has copied these sanctions. However, added together these sanctions and a non-binding resolution of the UN are hardly damaging consequences for Russia.

Why does this all matter to Australians? The first reason is that we are key member of the international community and it is vitally important that the collective community stops cross-border aggression wherever possible. These types of issues are always difficult to deal with in the UN system as two of the overriding principles in the UN Charter are non-interference in the internal workings of a nation state, while at the same time supporting the right of populations for "self-determination". Indeed Russia is arguing that it is simply supporting the self determination of ethnic Russians.

However, strong messages have to be sent to transgressors. How far you go is always hard to judge. In the United States some have argued that the Obama Administration's unwillingness to engage in military options with respect to the on-going conflict in Syria has sent a clear signal to President Putin that he can get away with his actions in respect of Ukraine. Conversely Jay Carney, President Obama's press secretary, has noted that if that was so obvious then how is it that Putin wasn't scared off from the 2008 invasion of Georgia despite the then recent invasion of Iraq led by President George Bush. These are certainly very difficult issues to deal with.

Having said that, closer to home Australia must deal with issues in the Asia Pacific region that could explode at any time. In Northern Asia there are very serious territorial disputes going on that the Australian public is barely aware of. In particular there are serious clashes occurring over sovereignty in the South China Sea and separately of islands variously called Diaoyu by the Chinese or Senkaku by the Japanese.

In the South China Sea six nations are disputing sovereignty issues around the Spratly Islands. Arguably China has been the most aggressive claiming sovereignty over the whole area. Late last year they also unilaterally declared a no-fly zone over the other disputed islands. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop rightly protested and "called-in" the Chinese ambassador to add to the protest. She was criticised by the Federal Opposition but that was hypocritical given former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's publicly known personal antagonism toward the Chinese administration.

The South China Sea contains essential trade routes. It is one of the busiest seaways in the world, seeing twenty-five percent of the world's crude oil traffic alone. As one of the world's largest trading nations that means they are also Australia's essential trade routes. It is vital that the Chinese Government of Xi Jinping does not receive the wrong messages from the international communities' weakness thus far in dealing with the Ukraine crisis. I am not suggesting that the Chinese are planning any invasions, however they have threatened unilateral "actions". These are hard issues to deal with and I do not envy Foreign Minister Bishop, and her colleagues in capitals around the world, in getting the correct balance with respect to Russia and possible future transgressors.

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About the Author

Peter Hendy is the MHR for Eden-Monaro.

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