To the casual observer, territorial disputes in the South China Sea may seem irrelevant to Australia's interests. However, due to the increasingly close relationship between state power and economics, where economic strength begets political influence, and the fact that Australia's top 2-way trading partners are all located in the Asia-Pacific region, such disputes cannot be ignored.
The South China Sea, made up of over 200 islands, rocks and reefs is one of the world's most important sea lanes, with over one third of the world's trade passing through. The area is also highly contested, with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, China, Taiwan and Vietnam all claiming sovereignty over overlapping parts of the region.
Japan's recent unveiling of a new warship, aircraft carrier lookalike the "Izumo", as well as the Philippines' efforts to seek arbitration in relation to China's claims over the South China Sea in the International Court of Justice, serve as a timely reminder that territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region are far from being resolved.
The latest flare-ups have rekindled many of the underlying enmities in East Asia. The choice of name for the Izumo, which shares its title with the Japanese ship that led the invasion of China in the 1930s, sparked reports across the Chinese media of Japanese preparations for re-militarisation. This development is part of increasing regional tension, with China's unveiling of its own aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in 2012, and Japan's nationalisation of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that same year raising the possibility of future territorial conflict in the East China Sea.
Likewise, the Philippines claim at the International Court of the Sea, while seeming to offer a means of resolution, may in fact end up having the opposite effect. By directly appealing to the international courts there are concerns that ASEAN's own conflict resolution measures, as defined under the Declaration of the Law of the Sea, may be undermined and may have adverse and unintended consequences upon the claims of other ASEAN states.
The states involved in these territorial disputes have for the most part adopted a 'wait and see' attitude, putting off long-lasting resolution for a future time and issuing empty statements expressing satisfaction with the status quo. Yet, while waiting for this 'future', tensions have continued to rise along with the possibility of an outburst of conflict. According to Ron Huisken, Senior Fellow at the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, what is lacking in resolving these territorial disputes is 'common sense, cooperation and leadership.'
Meanwhile, in the background, the US is completing its "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific and will play an important role in maintaining stability and security in the region. However, some states have expressed concern over US 'meddling' in Asian affairs, while others claim the US plans to 'contain' China.
So what does this mean for Australia as it enters the "Asian Century", and what role can Australia play in disputes that are seemingly far removed from Australia's own national security interests?
As Australia takes chairmanship of the G20 in 2014 and assumes a seat on the UN Security Council for 2013-14, Australia can play a greater role in resolving these regional disputes while assuming a role in what Kevin Rudd called in his first National Security Statement to the Australian Parliament in 2008 "creative middle power diplomacy."
And unlike the US, Australia may be able to avoid claims of meddling.
As the world's 13th largest economy and the 4th largest economy in Asia, with 1 in 4 Australians born overseas and with our population speaking over 260 languages, Australia is ideally placed to play a role in mitigating the regional tensions and take a greater leadership role.
According to Colin Bradford, from the Brookings Institution, middle powers are able to take on a greater leadership role in negotiating amongst other countries. This is because they stand for more than narrow self-interest, they care for multilateralism, they take a more pragmatic approach to global problems and importantly are able to 'cushion' the tensions between major powers. Due to Australia's position in the Asia-Pacific, we are well positioned to fulfil this role.