The United States and Australia in the Asia-Pacific Region
Dr Hannah Middleton
In November 2011 US President Obama announced that, after a decade of war in the Middle East, the US was “pivoting” its military, economic and diplomatic focus to the Asia-Pacific.
Apart from replacing “pivoting” with the spin word “rebalancing”, the process is continuing apace. This is confirmed by Obama’s speech to university students during the November 2014 G20 meeting in Brisbane. He said:
And so as President, I decided that – given the importance of this region to American security, to American prosperity – the United States would rebalance our foreign policy and play a larger and lasting role in this region. That’s exactly what we’ve done.
While the US has traditionally deployed its military forces equally to both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, 60 per cent of the US Navy’s 285 ships – including a majority its aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and littoral combat ships – are now to be based in the Asia-Pacific.
Accompanying this shift in military assets, the US also announced that it was extending its defence ties in the region, expanding military exercises with its allies and initiating new military deployments to a number of countries including 2500 Marines to Darwin.
As part of the plan to expand its presence in Asia, the chief of US Air Force Operations in the Pacific, General Carlisle, revealed in July 2013 that along with 2,500 Marines the US Air Force would dispatch “fighters, tankers, and at some point in the future, maybe bombers on a rotational basis” to Australia. US jets would also be sent to Changi East air base in Singapore, Korat air base in Thailand, Trivandrum in India, and possibly bases at Kubi Point and Puerto Princesa in the Philippines and airfields in Indonesia and Malaysia.
A new naval base is being built on Jeju Island in South Korea, 480 kilometres from China, for American and South Korean naval forces. It will host up to 20 warships, including three Aegis destroyers and an aircraft carrier, and will provide a long-range ballistic missile capability for targeting southeast China. The strategic naval and marine base on the Pacific island of Guam is also being upgraded.
In short, the Pivot is a policy of increasing militarisation of the Asia-Pacific Region, heightening the risks of war, including nuclear war, and fuelling a regional arms race.
The expansion of US and allied military power as part of the Pivot comes at a significant price for the region’s people.
Foreign military bases undermine sovereignty, democratic practices and human rights in host nations. They are often built on land seized from Indigenous communities, become a source of crimes committed including violent and dehumanising treatment of women and girls. They contribute to serious environmental contamination and increase the risk of life-threatening accidents. They divert limited national financial resources from addressing urgent human needs.
Officially, the Pivot is about countering threats to security and stability in the Asia-Pacific. In announcing the strategy, former US defence secretary Leon Panetta declared that the Pivot is about dealing with the challenges of “humanitarian assistance”, “weapons of mass destruction”, “narco-trafficking” and “piracy”.
However, these security threats are a pretext to conceal the obvious but undeclared objective of containing China’s legitimate rise in the region. Australia has clearly decided to implicate itself in the US containment strategy of China. As former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has acknowledged:
The choice for Australia to make is not for China or for the United States, but independence of mind to break with subservience to the United States. Subservience has not and will not serve Australia’s interests. It is indeed dangerous to our future. Australia should not do anything, for example, that suggests that we could be part of a policy of military containment of China, but marines in Darwin, spy planes in Cocos Island make us part of that policy of containment. 1
While the Pivot is about containing China, China does not pose a security threat to the United States. Just as during the Cold War when the threat from the Soviet Union was exaggerated to justify a US military presence in every part of the globe, and similar to the “war on terror” when the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction were used to justify US military intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere, the China “threat” has been largely manufactured.
The existing military gap between China and the US is vast, both in quantity and in quality. In 2013, the US officially spent $600 billion on defence, almost as much as the next 14 countries combined and over five times as much as China.2 Additionally, while China devotes substantial military resources to internal security, the US military focusses outwards, possessing and exercising overwhelming force projection capabilities. America maintains over 1000 foreign military facilities (China has none), has elite forces deployed to 134 countries and annually conducts 170 military exercises and 250 port visits in the Asia-Pacific Region alone.
The United States also maintains a clear nuclear superiority over any adversary, including China, which maintains only a small nuclear deterrent capability. As one specialist on Chinese military power puts it, the “advantage in numbers and accuracy is so great that a pre-emptive attack by the United States could feasibly (if not reliably) eliminate the entire Chinese nuclear force ... and still maintain most of its nuclear arsenal in reserve.”
This substantial military gap between the US and China is not reducing. While China is rising, it is not catching up to the US in terms of force projection capability as America continues to grow faster relative to China in terms of wealth per capita. Despite China’s extraordinary economic growth in recent decades, the US is in fact “now wealthier, more innovative, and more militarily powerful compared to China than it was in 1991”.
A sober assessment of China’s military capability makes it clear that Australia does not face a “China threat” now or for many years to come. Despite its military modernisation, China’s naval surface fleet, including its aircraft carrier, “cannot contend with many regional air forces ... much less carry out advanced naval operations in Australian waters”.
China, on the other hand, has good reason to hold serious security concerns. It has long suffered from a vulnerability to military intervention from the sea which has seen it repeatedly ripped apart and humiliated by Western powers and Japan. At present, the US maintains an overwhelming capacity to project force right up to China’s shores whereas China has no capacity to project its force anywhere near the US homeland.
As its economy grows larger, China is attempting to redress this historic imbalance and vulnerability by developing an “Anti Access-Area Denial” (A2AD) capacity to keep the military forces of the United States and other potentially unfriendly powers from approaching close to China. In response, America’s new military strategy developed to accompany the Pivot to Asia – dubbed “AirSea Battle” – is designed to defeat this potential capability and prevent China from developing the capacity to defend itself against an attack from its maritime approaches.
While nationalist claims and riches from oil and gas deposits are clearly present in China’s desire to control its adjacent seas, its major objective is to ensure “state survival”.
Disaster relief has increasingly become part of the justification for increased US troop deployments in the Asia-Pacific region.
With US Pacific Command controlling 330,000 personnel, 180 ships and 2,000 aircraft it is more than capable of being the “first and fastest” to respond to sudden calamities in the region. However, military humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations also provide a popular and convenient justification for maintaining such a massive presence in the Asia-Pacific, helping to legitimise its presence and soften its image.
HADR operations also help military expansion. The United States has capitalised on numerous natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific to push for increased military cooperation and a greater foreign military presence.
Moreover, because disaster relief is not the military’s primary role or area of expertise it is not cost-effective, efficient, or transparent. Disaster militarism not only fails to address the underlying causes for the growing rate of natural disasters, such as climate change, it is a significant contributor to them. The US military is the worst polluter on the planet for its uninhibited use of fossil fuels, massive creation of greenhouse gases, and extensive release of radioactive and chemical contaminants into the air, water, and soil.
The United States is intent on retaining its ability to dictate the rules of the international and regional order according to its own political, strategic and economic interests, even if that means risking a major conflict. In other words, the US is increasingly militarising the region in order to maintain its global and regional dominance.
Crucial to America’s ambition to maintain hegemony is the Pentagon’s “lily pads” strategy: the proliferation of smaller and more flexible US “forward operating bases” as a means to project power. According to the foremost expert on the lily pad strategy, Professor David Vine, Obama’s Asia Pivot “signals that East Asia will be at the centre of the explosion of lily-pad bases and related developments”.
Military planners see a future of endless small-scale interventions in which a large, geographically dispersed collection of bases will always be primed for instant operational access ... In other words, Pentagon officials dream of nearly limitless flexibility, the ability to react with remarkable rapidity to developments anywhere on Earth, and thus, something approaching total military control over the planet.8
The ambition for military superiority is inextricably linked to US economic goals. In 2010, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that ‘harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests’. China specialist Peter Lee elaborates on what this actually means:
Inevitably, this means sustaining the military assets, alliances, and political and economic pressure points necessary to make sure that Uncle Sam is getting his fair share out of Asia. That really appears to be the bottom line: that there is little justification for the United States to “lead” in Asia other than the China threat … to hog the Asian economic pie.9
The economic dimension of America’s Pivot to Asia is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that the United States is currently attempting to impose on the region. The TPP is the latest innovation in a long list of economic globalisation efforts aimed at concentrating wealth further in the hands of US corporations.
Australia, too, as one of the countries party to the TPP, is being pressured by the US to adhere to measures which will undermine Australia’s sovereignty, healthcare, environmental standards and internet freedom to the benefit of a few US and Australian corporations.10 While the public has no right to see the agreement before it is signed, over 600 business representatives have full access to the draft and get to play an inside role in the process.
As part of the Pivot, a United States Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) numbering 2,500 is being deployed to Darwin. Scheduled to be deployed in incremental phases each year until 2016, the full Darwin MAGTF will consist of command, ground combat and air combat elements available for rapid deployment for expeditionary combat. As of April 2014, there were 1150 US Marines in Darwin.
Speaking from Parliament House, Obama’s announcement was considered to be highly symbolic and a confirmation that Australia had decided to firmly attach itself to America’s China containment policy. A report prepared for the US Congress characterised Obama’s plans for Australia as the “most concrete new element” of the Pacific Pivot strategy.11
Since the announcement of the troop deployment to Darwin, a number of developments have occurred that serve to demonstrate Australia’s increasingly important role in America’s strategy for projecting power and maintaining hegemony in the region.
In August 2012, a report commissioned by the US Department of Defence to review current US military force posture and deployment plans canvassed the possibility of basing Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft such as the Global Hawk unmanned drone and the MC-12W Liberty aircraft in the Cocos Islands.12
In August 2013, the US revealed plans to establish a special naval task force to provide “amphibious lift” for the 2500 US marines operating out of Australia, allowing them to rapidly deploy to a war zone in the region. James Brown, military fellow with the Lowy Institute, pointed out that the new naval group would be designed to project power around the maritime crossroads of the Malacca Straits, Southeast Asia, and the eastern Indian Ocean: “A force of this size has a strategic impact and sends a strategic message,” Brown said.13 It was also revealed in late 2013 that the US would likely permanently pre-position military equipment such as armoured vehicles in Australia to support the eventual full deployment of 2500 US Marines to Darwin. 14
In November 2013, a report prepared by a major US think-tank and provided to US national security officials15 identified Australia as having “moved from ‘down under’ to ‘top centre’ in terms of geopolitical import.” “America’s strong ties with Australia provide it with the means to preserve US influence and military reach across the Indo-Pacific”. Australia is thus “increasingly viewed by Washington as a vital ‘bridging power’ power in Asia”. Consequently, the report predicts, “the U.S. Australia relationship may well prove to be the most special relationship of the 21st century.”
Even more significant than these recent developments has been the extraordinary increase in military and intelligence cooperation between Australia and the United States over the last decade and the announcement of new “joint facilities” or increased US access to existing facilities in Australia. Along with the deepening integration of the Australian Defence Force with US armed forces and policy changes undertaken at the strategic level, Professor Richard Tanter writes that the result “may well be, from a Chinese perspective, that Australia is not so much hosting US military bases, but is becoming a virtual American base in its own right.”16
Australia’s support for America’s quest for military dominance also extends to space. In 2010, Australia extended its participation in the US global Space Surveillance Network when it agreed to station a powerful space surveillance sensor in Western Australia. Apart from detecting space debris, the network’s most important function is for US offensive and defensive aspects of war-fighting in space.17
The disclosures by the NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden cast new light on Australia’s deep integration with US global and regional military strategy. Apart from the numerous revelations about Australia’s extensive intelligence gathering responsibilities to intercept phone calls and data across Asia as part of the US-led global spying network,18 also revealed was the extent of Australia’s direct participation in US global military operations through the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap outside Alice Springs.
The facility has played a major role in illegal US drone strike assassinations in Afghanistan and Iraq by tracking the precise geo-location of suspects to be targeted and passing on that intelligence to the US military within minutes. The facility has become so important to the American military that Australian intelligence officials say the “US will never fight another war in the eastern hemisphere without the direct involvement of Pine Gap”.19
Former Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating and even Kevin Rudd have each spoken out about the uncritical alignment of the Gillard government with the Obama administration’s shift towards a policy of military containment of China.20
Unsurprisingly, the Liberal Party has displayed even greater sycophancy. When the decision to deploy US troops to Darwin was announced, then opposition leader Tony Abbott offered to go even further and establish a new joint facility on Australian soil, declaring the Coalition “would be happy to see the establishment of another joint facility so that these arrangements could become more permanent”.21
The advent of the Abbott Coalition government has escalated existing tensions with China and there has been a noticeable cooling of relations between Australia and China since the Coalition came to power.22
It has been a common bi-partisan refrain in Australian politics to assert the need for an overwhelming US military presence in the Asia-Pacific in order to maintain peace and stability. The need to help solidify US regional “leadership” is one of the long-held and primary official justifications for maintaining the Australia-US alliance.
The claim is false. In fact the reverse is true. The US has been a major source of instability in the region since the Second World War, engaging in costly wars and supporting dictatorial regimes in order to assert and maintain its hegemony. From the Korean War to the Vietnam War and the wider destruction of Indochina, support for brutal dictatorships such as Rhee and others in South Korea, Suharto in Indonesia and Marcos in the Philippines, the US has been directly and indirectly responsible for major acts of aggression, state terrorism and oppression in the region and beyond.23
American economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz details that American-style globalisation under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) partially caused and later exacerbated the crisis, plunging millions into poverty and threatening the economies and stability of the entire third world.24
As East Asian specialist Professor Gavan McCormack points out, the US benefits from the various regional disputes that keeps Japan, South Korea and other US allies dependent on America:
If relations between Japan and North Korea, or even between North and South Korea, were ever normalized, the tension would drain from them and the comprehensive incorporation of Japan within the American hegemonic project would become correspondingly more difficult to justify. In other words, if peace broke out in east Asia, the justification for the sprawling US military base presence in South Korea and Japan would disappear.25
Professor of International Politics, Mark Beeson, makes the point that American strategic involvement in the region “is expressly designed to keep East Asia divided and its security orientation firmly oriented towards Washington.” Beeson points out that keeping the region divided has been a key element of America’s overall grand strategy:
... since the United States does not want to encourage a balancing coalition against its dominant position, it is not clear that it has a strategic interest in the full resolution of differences between, say, Japan and China or Russia and China. Some level of tension among these states reinforces their individual need for a special relationship with the United States.26
The instability caused by US hegemony has led a number of experts to argue for a reduction in US offensive forces in the region. Strategic studies expert and former Australian Department of Defence secretary, Professor Hugh White, has repeatedly warned of the risks of the continuation of the status quo, arguing that it is in Australia’s best interests for the US relinquish primacy in the region. 27
Relinquishing hegemony and withdrawing all offensive US military forces in the region would go a long way towards reducing tensions and the risk of instability and war. It would constitute an important first step towards the total demilitarisation and denuclearisation of the region and create space for a truly peaceful and integrated regional community of nations to develop and prosper, based on the ideals of democracy, justice, human rights, international cooperation and sustainability.